By Lara Levin
As part of its conference series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School united scholars from across the country for a Jan. 30 symposium titled The 2008 Beijing Olympics: Public Policy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?.
After presentations on the international and domestic politics, economy legacy, and the role of the media in the Games, the common feeling among all panelists of varying disciplines was one of anticipation for the future of China in face of numerous challenges after what the International Olympic Committee called “an undisputable success.”
Based on her studies in Beijing and other regions of China preceding the Olympic Games, symposium panelist Susan Brownell (Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri, St. Louis) suggested that China’s political goals serving as host were overwhelmingly domestically aimed.
Brownell’s fellow panelist and associate professor of public relations Jay Wang, a Chinese native, spoke of his own reflections and observations as he experienced the Beijing Olympics. Wang agreed with Brownell’s claim of a primarily domestic focus of the Games, defining the event as a “feel good” moment for the people of China and a “confidence boost” for the nation, but also outlining challenges that the Olympics presented.
“The ongoing challenge for China will be striking a balance between pursuing shared Chinese values while asserting a national identity in an international arena,” Wang said. “There is also the additional challenge of managing the people’s rising expectations of the role of government.”
These rising expectations, Wang and others predict, will be born out of the significant infrastructure spending required of the Chinese government in order to successfully carry out the Games. Improvements in transportation and air cleanliness not only call into question the government’s attention to quality of life issues but also the ramifications of the multibillion dollar budget of the Olympics.
Though some have suggested that the $43 billion spent on the Olympics could serve as an economic stimulus for China, a presentation by Jeffery G. Owen (Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept. of Economics and Management, Gustavus Adolphus College) and the following discussion by Chen Baizhu (Associate Professor of Clinical Finance and Business Economics, USC Marshall School of Business) concluded that there was no real economic value for China or the city of Beijing for hosting the Olympics. The value they recognized was in the “feel good” moment that came as a result of the, as Chen put it, “big party” that was the Games.
“The value of that feeling for the Chinese people is priceless,” Owen said. “And when I say priceless, I mean that in the sense that it can’t be measured or quantified by any dollar amount.”
Communication professor Dan Durbin presented a final panel discussing the role of the media in the Beijing Olympics brought to light another concept of immeasurable value—the balanced reporting of the U.S. media.
Barbara Walkosz (Associate Professor of Communication, University of Colorado, Denver) presented her study on the U.S. media coverage of the Olympics, which she defined as a balancing act,—depicting aspects of China as familiarly Western while culturally unique, navigating the tension between global human rights standards and the sovereignty and prerogative of the government, and ultimately avoiding judgment and evaluation.
Delivering the final remarks of the symposium, Monroe Price (Director of the Center for Global Communication Studies, University of Pennsylvania) posed the initial question once again—Were the 2008 Beijing Olympics a public diplomacy triumph or a public relations spectacle? This question, however, did nothing if not led to more. If it was a triumph, for whom? For China? For other countries? For corporations? While China’s development of a stronger national image and role in the global community was one conclusion of the symposium, the greater issue is of perpetuation and maintenance of this image in the face of increasing domestic and international challenges, for which the panelists and the world will await with great anticipation.