Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Bottom Line on the Bejing Olympics

McDonalds, Visa, Coca Cola, Samsung, General Electric--should we feel sorry for them? They spent huge sums of money for the privilege of advertising their products during the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing, China. But now the Tibetans, always a bit unruly, are in open revolt and the Chinese government, always prone to violence, is sending thousands and thousands of heavily armed troops to Tibet to suppress the uprising. The large corporate advertisers face a serious dilemma. Their customers may object if they do not speak out against the human rights violations in Tibet; they may show their displeasure by patronizing Mastercard instead of Visa, Wendy's instead of MacDonalds, or Pepsi instead of Coke. All of a sudden, the investment in the Beijing Olympics seems a bad deal. But, on the other hand, if these companies were to criticize the actions of the Beijing government, they might lose their permission to do business in China. They could lose their chance to sell cokes to more than one billion Chinese. Coca Cola's stock holders would not be happy about that.
The advertisers in the Beijing Olympics truly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
But before you get all choked up about the troubles of these multi-national corporations, pause a minute and ask yourself: what is new about the suppression of the Tibetan uprising. Should we really be surprised?
China has occupied Tibet since 1959. There never has been any evidence that the invasion of Tibet was welcomed by its population. Thirty years later, in 1989, students demanding more democracy in China were killed by troops in Tienanmin Square in Beijing. Once again the Chinese government showed itself to be prone to harsh violence in the interest in maintaining political control by the ruling Communist Party.
Did McDonalds or Coke not know that? Yes, of course they knew that but they did not care. After all "business is business" and there is a great deal of money to be made and that is all that counts.
The Olympics, and the question whether to advertise on the broadcasts of Olympic events, is only a small episode in a much larger drama.
Google had been operating in China for a number of years, but early in 2006 the Chinese government demanded that Google block sites not acceptable to the government. Google agreed, making itself complicit in the Chinese government's censorship. Google also closed down e-mail and chat-rooms, because they could not easily be monitored by the Chinese government. Nor is Google an exception. The BBC reports that "Last year, Yahoo was accused of supplying data to China that were used as evidence to jail a Chinese journalist for 10 years."
These are some recent examples of large corporations being willing to cooperate with authoritarian regimes for the sake of their bottom line. These enterprises are willing to support any government, however brutal and tyrannical, in order to improve their balance sheet.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. During the thirties, when the Nazis rebuilt the German army, they got material assistance from General Motors and Ford Motors in building trucks and tanks. Both corporations had factories in Germany and produced military vehicles for the German military until long after the outbreak of World War II. A significant portion of German weapons were produced by the Thyssen Iron Works. Thyssen was closely associated with Senator Prescott Bush, the President George W. Bush's grandfather. The Guardian (UK) reports "George Bush's grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany."
Finally, the most awful example of all: the extermination of vast numbers of German Jews was made much easier with the help of accurate lists of German Jews and their addresses. IBM developed and leased to the German government the technology for making the needed lists of Jews to be deported. IBM was rewarded handsomely for that service.
The business of business is profit. They will make profit by supporting authoritarian regimes just as happily as they make it in democratic countries. They would do business with the Devil himself, if it were profitable. The dilemmas raised by the Beijing Olympics are just a bump in the road to greater profits, never mind the human or moral costs.