It's not surprising the issue has flared up this close to the games. When the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the host city in July 2001 -- the first time it picked a city in a developing market -- political groups started planning campaigns as quickly as longtime sponsors did.
China was always going to be a sensitive choice, and not just for political reasons. In the eyes of many Western consumers and even a few government leaders, its cheap labor force is stealing jobs from developed markets like the U.S. Products made in China may not be safe. And big businesses in China might raid weakened U.S. firms just as the Japanese invaded corporate America in the 1980s.
If China is a threat to some, multinational marketers clearly see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Getting rich in China has never been simple, however. Its Communist government, like its ancient emperors in earlier centuries, prefer to keep wealth at home and dangle opportunity more than profit in the starry eyes of foreign businessmen.
The Olympics symbolize some of the changes taking place in China. The games are giving foreign companies like Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald's, General Electric, UPS, Samsung, Johnson & Johnson and other sponsors a chance to form meaningful bonds with consumers and companies.
Some of these relationships could change China for the better, like those wind turbines and water-recycling plants that GE set up to help reduce pollution in Beijing. With 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities located in China, progress in Beijing might trickle down to other cities.
Sport centers set up by Adidas could help get Chinese away from computers and out on a playing field or basketball court. Since the country has never developed much of an amateur sports scene of its own, foreign help to develop local athletic clubs and facilities is welcome.
I understand why Westerners sometimes dislike and fear China and encourage President Bush to pressure China for a myriad of valid reasons. But Western companies and Chinese people are getting and learning a lot from this Olympics experience.