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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Corporate Sponsors Nervous as Tibet Protest Groups Shadow Olympic Torch's Run

March 31, 2008

By HEATHER TIMMONS
The New York Times
March 29, 2008

The disruption of a Chinese official’s address during the Olympic torch
lighting ceremonies in Greece last week was just the beginning of a
string of protests planned to coincide with the torch’s trip around the
globe.

Monday’s incident was “like lighting a fuse that is going to burn from
now until the Olympics in Beijing,” said Paul Bourke, an officer of the
Australian Tibet Council, a pro-Tibet group. The torch relay is “really
giving a focus to groups like ours around the world for the next three
months.”

Groups have decried China’s policies in other areas, particularly
Darfur. But the pro-Tibet network, spread around the world, is more
organized and interconnected than other groups, and advertising
consultants and political scientists, say its influence is expected to
keep the issue of autonomy and violence in Tibet front and center for weeks.

That is troubling news for sponsors of the torch relay, including
Coca-Cola, Lenovo and Samsung Electronics. Advertising analysts estimate
the companies have paid as much as $15 million each to sponsor the relay.

“What started off as a small number of organizations threatening to
create some disruption has escalated significantly,” said Dan Parr, the
head of Asia-Pacific for brandRapport, a marketing consulting agency.
“This must be taking some of the gloss off for some of these sponsors.”

A well-organized and far-reaching band of Tibet support groups is
galvanizing around the torch relay. The torch moves next to Beijing,
then to Almaty, Kazakhstan; Istanbul; St. Petersburg, Russia; London;
Paris; San Francisco; and Buenos Aires, before heading to Africa and the
Middle East. It then goes through Asia and Australia, before winding its
way through Chinese provinces, including Tibet, before the start of the
Olympics in August. Planning is under way for protests in most of the
major cities outside China.

The communications manager for Coca-Cola, Kerry Kerr, said, “We are
keeping an eye on the situation,” but added that the company was not
involved in picking the cities involved in the relay.

“We feel that using the torch relay to put political pressure on China
is not appropriate,” Ms. Kerr said. Still, Coke has had several meetings
with protest groups, she said, and is sharing the groups’ concerns with
the International Olympic Committee.

Coca-Cola is not speaking directly with the Chinese government on the issue.

In a written statement, another sponsor, Samsung Electronics of South
Korea, said the company “has been in good-faith dialogue with activist
groups, and has also been in regular communication with the
International Olympic Committee.”

Lenovo, a Chinese PC maker, did not respond to several requests for comment.

“These type of protests can cause deep heartache,” even though they may
not always translate directly into sales figures, said Eric Denzenhall,
the president of a crisis public relations firm in Washington.

Companies have changed everything from benefits packages for same-sex
couples to animal testing practices to where they obtain their lumber in
response to protests. Some have cut ties to countries.

Barclays Bank, for example, was the first British company to pull out of
South Africa, in 1986, after anti-apartheid activists and students
protested its investments there. The bank’s share of the student loan
market in Britain had fallen significantly while protesters were
pressuring it to withdraw.

None of the dozen advocates contacted suggested that Coca-Cola or other
sponsors should pull out of the torch relay. But even former members of
pro-Tibetan groups say they are looking for some sign the sponsors are
aware of the criticisms of the Chinese government.

Advertisers like Coca-Cola “have to have some responsibility to
humanity” and have to react to current events, said Ramneek Bhogal, an
assistant professor at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, in Davenport,
Iowa, who as a student, led a chapter of Students for a Free Tibet.

Protest groups have been particularly incensed at the relay’s planned
route through Tibet and over Mount Everest, saying that is sure to
ignite more violence. Many groups are calling for a route change, but so
far both the Beijing organizers and the International Olympic Committee
say it will continue as planned.

 From the beginning, sponsors and planners of the Beijing Olympics have
worked out their marketing campaigns with care, often emphasizing social
causes.

Coca-Cola’s torch campaign, for example, focuses on environmental
champions. General Electric ads promote clean-water technologies and
solar power. Analysts say the focus on social responsibility is aimed at
deflecting possible criticism from being associated with China’s more
controversial environmental and human rights policies.

Violence flared in Tibet after monks staged protests on March 10, the
anniversary of a failed uprising against China. Tibetan groups say
protesters were beaten, arrested and in some cases killed. They assert
that more than 100 have been killed since March 10.

The Chinese government puts the number of dead at 19. Violence spread
through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and shops and buildings were burned.

Reports of violence in Tibet and a heavy-handed Chinese reaction spread
quickly, pushing Tibetan support groups to action.

Assessing the total number of active Tibetan supporters worldwide is
difficult. One umbrella organization, the International Tibet Support
Network, connects more than 150 support groups worldwide, and estimates
that its groups alone have 250,000 paid-up members.

“To a lot of people, Tibet has this mythic power, this Shangri-La
image,” said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for
Tibet, which is based in Washington.
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