China, Tibet, the Olympics and tourism: Crisis or opportunity?

Written by editor

The recent disturbing events in Tibet and China’s heavy handed response to Tibetan protests reveal the current state of political leadership in China and the timidity of international response.

The recent disturbing events in Tibet and China’s heavy handed response to Tibetan protests reveal the current state of political leadership in China and the timidity of international response.

Recently, the international community expressed moral outrage against a similar crackdown on Buddhist protests in Myanmar (Burma) with some tourism organizations and academics calling for tourism boycotts against Myanmar. The same people, usually so strident, are strangely muted in response to China.

The Chinese repression of Tibetan protest is depressingly familiar as a classic response of a totalitarian government to internal dissent. China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics was viewed optimistically as an opportunity for a new, more open Chinese society to be on full view to the world. However, a history of the modern Olympics reveals that when a one party dictatorship hosts an Olympic Games the authoritarian leopard never changes it spots.

In 1936, when Nazi Germany hosted the Berlin Olympics, persecution of Jews and political opponents never ceased but merely became less blatant for a few months. When Moscow hosted the Olympics in 1980, the Soviet regime continued its occupation of Afghanistan and its persecution and imprisonment of political and religious dissidents. During the 1936 and 1980 Olympics, media coverage was controlled and sanitized by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Consequently, it is hardly a surprise that while China’s police and security apparatus continues its repression of religious dissidents like the Falun Gong and a crackdown on dissent in Tibet months before the Olympics, the Chinese government restricts media coverage in China.

The major difference between 2008 and past Olympic years is that banning and gagging the media is not the easy option it once was. The Olympics today is as much a media event as a spectacle. Modern media coverage is global, pervasive, instantaneous and demanding of access. China took a risk in accepting the hosting of the 2008 Olympics knowing that it would be in the media spotlight not just for the Olympic Games alone but as a nation on show for this year. China’s attempted media blackout imposed on Tibet could actually do China’s image more harm than good as hard news, open reporting and facts are replaced by speculation and claim on both sides of the China-Tibet divide.

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Despite the growing sophistication of Chinese society, its embrace of technology and international business, the Chinese government’s propaganda message on events in Tibet remains almost as crude and oafish as it was in the days of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. China’s blaming of the “Dali Lama Clique” for the problems in Tibet is nonsensical when the Dali Lama himself publicly calls for peace and restraint amongst Tibetans and opposes boycotts of the Beijing Olympics. If the Chinese government was politically and media savvy the current problems would have presented an opportunity for a joint effort between the Dali Lama, his supporters and the Chinese government to jointly address the problems in Tibet in the full glare of positive international publicity. China has done the opposite and the issues in Tibet, obfuscated by a media blackout, have rapidly descended into a crisis which will potentially cloud the 2008 Olympics and deny China’s tourism industry it’s much-hoped for Olympic tourism dividend.

China has an opportunity to escape the perceptual quicksand into which it has fallen but it will take inspired leadership and reversal of old ways to repair the damage its actions have caused China’s overall international image and its appeal as both an Olympic venue and a tourism destination. China would be well advised to adopt an approach which will not lose national face. The international community is too paralyzed by its awe and fear of China’s economic, political and military power to protest effectively against China’s actions. Conversely, international tourists do have the power to vote on China’s actions by their absence, if they choose to do so. This is not an advocacy of a tourism boycott but many tourists may fear traveling to China under the current circumstances.

A smart Chinese leadership will express its appreciation of the Dali Lama’s call for the Beijing Olympics to continue and for a peaceful resolution of the Tibetan crisis. In the spirit of the Olympic year, it be in China’s interests to call a conference in the full glare of international publicity to negotiate a resolution which includes the Dali Lama. Such an approach would mark a massive paradigm shift for China’s leadership. However, there is much at stake. China is counting on tourism growth as a major element in its economic future and this year China knows its international image is at stake.

The Chinese place great value on “face.” The Chinese government’s current actions in relation to Tibet are losing the government face and have plunged China into perceptual crisis. In Chinese, the word crisis means “problem and opportunity.” There is now a chance for China to seize an opportunity which may help resolve China’s Tibetan problem and its international image simultaneously, but it requires rapid changed lateral thinking on the part of its political leadership. China’s much anticipated tourism business growth from the 2008 Olympics is currently under threat because of the odium linked to China’s current actions in Tibet. A rapidly changed approach could rescue a very challenging situation for China.

[David Beirman is the author of the book “Restoring Tourism Destinations in Crisis: A strategic Marketing Approach” and is the foremost eTN crisis expert. He may be reached via the email address: [email protected]]

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About the author


Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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