At Beijing 2022, ‘woke capital’ in awkward spot on human rights

Corporate sponsors at the Winter Games are keeping a low profile after championing social justice issues in the West.

A woman jogs past an installation near the Beijing Olympic Park at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Multinational firms are downplaying their association with the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics amid controversy over China's human rights record [Jae C. Hong/AP]

Taipei, Taiwan – Airbnb’s “community” section reads like a who’s who of progressive causes in the United States.

The short-term rental giant has donated to Black Lives Matter, provided housing to Afghan refugees, and boasts top marks on a corporate equality index as an inclusive employer.

The top feature on its English-language news page is an article, dated February 2, about an Airbnb rental in Los Angeles hosted by American actress Issa Rae, who is known for speaking out against racial injustice and inequality.

Missing from Airbnb’s website, Twitter or Instagram is any mention of the company’s official sponsorship of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which have been underway since Friday.

Airbnb is not the only official Olympics sponsor that appears to be downplaying its role at the Winter games – at least in English – following a diplomatic boycott by countries including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania over human rights abuses against ethnic minority Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region and pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong.

The social media accounts of sponsors such as Snickers and Bridgestone, the Japanese auto parts company, have chosen to highlight the Super Bowl over the Olympics, while Black History Month ranks higher on the Instagram account of US multinational Procter and Gamble.

Airbnb logo
Sponsors of the Winter Olympic Games such as Airbnb have taken a vocal stance on social justice issues in the United States [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]

Multinational corporations’ tepid association with the Games highlights the awkward position that firms can face when dabbling in social justice issues – a trend dubbed “woke capitalism” – whose appeal to consumers varies widely by geography.

Many official sponsors appear to be running “bifurcated campaigns” that see them running one campaign in China around the Olympics and different campaigns elsewhere, according to Rick Burton, who served as chief marketing officer for the US Olympic Committee at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

“Are sponsors using Olympic imagery worldwide? And are they using it as aggressively as they have in the past? And I think the short answer is no, they’re not,” Burton told Al Jazeera, citing a host of reasons ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the fact that the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics ended just six months ago.

Burton said that despite the controversy surrounding the Winter Olympics, brands likely knew what they were signing up for from the start.

“In Rio de Janeiro, the displacement of the poor and the pollution and the use of funds to build sporting facilities when there was poverty caused people to want sponsors to protest or boycott,” he said. “In Sochi, Russia, the same existed on the topic of gay rights, and it now exists in China, based on human rights reporting or human rights beliefs.”

American companies, in particular, are facing a challenge beyond the diplomatic boycott as the Winter Olympics coincides with the Super Bowl — the most important event in American football — for the first time ever. Among the big names, only Intel and Visa have prominent Olympics branding on their websites and social media accounts.

French and German multinationals Atos and Allianz have at least some Instagram content, although nothing on Twitter, while Swiss watchmaker Omega links to a dedicated Olympics page on its social media accounts. Most sponsors have an Instagram story that the user has to click on to see Olympic content, although it is not part of the general feed.

Allianz told Al Jazeera in a statement that the company had made a long-term commitment to sponsor the Olympics “which goes far beyond the current Winter Games,” while Atos said in a statement that despite being an Olympic sponsor since 2001, it had not advertised at Asian games including PyeongChang 2018, Tokyo 2021, and now Beijing 2022.

Swiss watchmaker Omega, which describes itself as the official “timekeeper” of the Olympics instead of a sponsor, links to a dedicated page for the Games on its social media accounts.

Airbnb, Snickers, Bridgestone and Procter and Gamble did not reply to requests for comment.

Past controversies

Despite the diplomatic boycott, the Beijing Winter Olympics are far from the first edition of the games to court controversy. Most Olympics have drawn some form of protest, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which was held months after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting “gay propaganda.”

The 1972 Munich and 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics were marred by violence. The Summer Olympics in 1936, 1976, 1980 and 1984 all attracted major boycotts due to links with Nazi Germany, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the Cold War.

One major difference with the Beijing Olympics is the recent rise in identity politics and social justice activism in the West and how brands and corporations are expected to respond, said Burton, the former US Olympic Committee official.

“The big difference is how social awareness has changed even since Sochi in 2014, when people were concerned about Russia’s LGBTQ record, and with Black Lives Matter campaigns and huge protests movements around the world, these issues are even more mainstream,” Burton said, adding that social awareness looks different from country to country.

Differing perceptions and values can put Western firms at odds with Chinese consumers, who may value sustainability and environmentalism but do not want to see brands criticising China on issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Tibet, said Zak Dychtwald, the founder and CEO of Young China Group, a think-tank focused on China’s emerging identity.

Thanks to social media, the distance between China and the rest of the world has also narrowed, which means consumers are increasingly quick to react as well, Dychtwald said.

“Whereas a decade ago, really pre-WeChat, there were greater barriers separating those two information ecosystems, those barriers have become far more porous and so there are far more public slip-ups,” Dychtwald told Al Jazeera, referring to China’s most popular messaging app.

“I call them slip-ups because these are companies that are aware of the ecosystem they are facing in China, not just the regulatory ecosystem but potential consumer backlash – especially these last three years.”

nike shop nike
Western brands such as Nike have come under fire from Chinese consumers for speaking out on human rights issues in China [File: Florence Lo/Reuters]

Brands may also be conscious of public relations disasters and boycotts in China faced by Nike, H&M and Intel after they pledged to not source materials from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labour in the region.

“You don’t want to put yourself in a position of saying something about Chinese production, and then be put in a position where you might have to retract it,” Veronica Bates Kassatly, a UK-based independent analyst in the sustainable apparel sector, told Al Jazeera.

“They are fed up with the Western world humiliating them and they’re not going to put up with it any more,”  Kassatly said, referring to Chinese consumers. “They now have the economic muscle and they don’t need to.”

This puts many multinational brands in a difficult position and may reward silence at events like the Olympics. While companies like Apple, Airbnb and the NBA may hail from the US, they now see China as one of their most important markets.

The Olympics, Dychtwald said, has just provided the opportunity for consumers outside of China to see that shift.

“They call it ‘woke capital’ in the US, there’s a sense that consumers can change how companies can behave, and in China, that’s very much true [as well],” he said. “I think what makes a lot of people uncomfortable is that what a lot of consumers [in China] are asking for is inconsistent with the moral standard that we set in the US and in Western countries.”

Source: Al Jazeera