China spent a record US$43 billion (294.3 billion yuan) preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games. That’s 3.3 times more than its predecessor Athens and over 17 times that of Atlanta in 1996. Over the past 20 years, about 70 billion (in 2007 US dollars) was spent on the Olympics—over half this sum owes to Beijing.
Now, I don’t know much about the Olympic Movement or about Olympic spirit, but what I do know is that’s a lot of money to be spending in a fortnight no matter what it is you’re buying.
To be sure, there’s been lots of talk about China’s (quite literally) Olympic spending. But the truth is simple really. While China’s 43-billion-dollar spending spree may have been bad business decision-making, it sure was good brand-building.
Peaceful, Better world (Or Not)
“To contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play” is what the Olympics is all about. Or, at least, that’s what the International Olympic Committee has to say about it. China, on the other hand, had a different perspective to the Games. In place of all this highly agreeable, yet hardly meaningful fluff, they listed the following strategic objectives: one, to promote “the modernization of Beijing as well as the rest of the country;” two, to create “a new image of Beijing;” and, three, to strive “for an all-around and concerted development in China’s sports.” The objectives are good and smart. Yet isn’t a 43-billion budget just a little over the top for such a superficial endeavor?
Face-building in the Blood
Still, 43 billion is paltry if you know the Chinese. The China volume of the World Trade Press Country Business Guides lists three must-knows of the Chinese mentality. First on the list is Confucianism, a 2,500-year-old code of social conduct characterized by its emphasis on obedience and respect towards elders and superiors, filial piety, loyalty, humility, sincerity, and courtesy. Next listed was guanxi, the Chinese concept summarized by the maxim “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Lastly and, perhaps, the most important of the three is the concept of “face” or mianzi. “No understanding of the Chinese mentality is complete without a grasp of the concept of face,” reads the guide. “Chinese are acutely sensitive to having and maintaining face in all aspects of social and business life. It can be likened to a prized commodity: it can be given, lost, taken away, or earned.”
Brand-building Par Excellence
And why not a commodity? That’s 40 billion dollars spread over a little more than a billion Chinese—which comes to about 30 dollars per person for a worldwide mianzi makeover. Not bad. After all, the Olympics has already started to do its part to “raise the global profile of China” as Moody economist Sherman Chan put it.
Early reports state the extravagant spending on the Beijing Games may not be all that bad for business. Despite having spent a record sum on the Olympics, “Beijing accounts for only a speck of the country’s economy and population,” writes Los Angeles Times reporter Don Lee. “In that sense, experts liken the Olympics’ probable effect on China to Atlanta’s on the United States after the 1996 Games, where there was no economic fallout.”
Economic fallout or none, what’s more important (especially for the Chinese) is the fact that more and more people around the world are beginning to see China in a new light; beyond Tibet and Tiananmen ca. 1989 toward Ping Pong greatness and the Tiananmen of 08/08/08.
Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken to China’s new face. He described the Chinese as sharp, forthright, unafraid to express their views, confident, optimistic, friendly, helpful, and lacking in cynicism. In his August 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Blair went on to say that “hosting the Olympics is now a fantastic opportunity for any nation,” describing the Beijing Games as a “powerful spectacle, stunning in sight and sound” and calling its opening ceremony “the spectacular to end all spectaculars.
print ed: 10/08