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Country Branding: China's Olympic Nightmare

I always warn my clients that taking a half-baked product to market will actually do more damage than good. Now let's see if the same applies to nation-branding.

The Olympics will focus the media spotlight on China. But will China actually enjoy the focus? Will the Olympics help or hurt brand China?

The hurt has already begun.

In a recent New York Times article "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes", Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley tell us that "Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party."

Apparently the government has banned publication of data on the subject for "fear of inciting social unrest."

But the Kahn and Yardley give us some data nevertheless:

- An internal, unpublicized report by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2003 estimated that 300,000 people die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 deaths could be attributed to indoor air pollution caused by poorly ventilated coal and wood stoves or toxic fumes from shoddy construction materials, said a person involved in that study.

- Another report, prepared in 2005 by Chinese environmental experts, estimated that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.

and:

- A World Bank study done with SEPA, the national environmental agency, concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution.

Wait, there's more.

An official study to estimate the environmental cost of China's runaway economic growth was shut down prematurely.

Greenwashing, apparently, is in. Here's an absurd story which drives the point home: "Villagers in southwestern China are scratching their heads after an estimated more than $60,000 was spent to paint an entire barren mountainside green."

Whoo-hoo.

Smog from China is contributing to bad air quality and possibly even affecting the climate in parts of the western United States. The Telegraph also reports: "Almost a third of the air over Los Angeles and San Francisco can be traced directly to Asia..."

And now, to make things worse, they're probably going to beat up the Chinese enviromentalists who dare to speak up. Again from NYTimes:

"At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment."

Ouch.

Nation Branding 101: Embrace reality.

Maybe we can just cheer everyone up by watching a movie:

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