The recent history of multinational brands in China points to a familiar outcome for the 2022 event

Corporate entanglements with China’s human rights issues are nothing new. Companies such as Zara and H&M have been forced to grapple with the potentially brand tarnishing consequences of doing business in China while attempting to appease the government and its strict monitoring of corporate statements critical, even tangentially, of the country’s policies. Nike and Adidas have also been hit with boycotts in China after taking critical positions on the country’s human rights issues.

Given this history of economic knock-on effects for companies that acknowledge China’s human rights issues, it’s no surprise that some corporate sponsors are, for now, avoiding directly addressing the new diplomatic boycotts.

“Governments can’t order companies to withdraw. Many of the companies have signed contracts until 2028, 2032, and to pull out of the games would lead to complicated legal, logistic, not to mention financial issues,” said Xuefei Ren, a China expert and associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University. “[Companies] such as Coca-Cola, are so embedded in the Chinese market it’s hard to imagine it will boycott the Olympics.”

However, as the Olympics approach, the current low hum of critical discourse will likely be elevated to a prolonged din of high-profile objections and public protests that will shadow the two-week event.

“Unfortunately for [Olympic sponsors], the era where a major multinational could flourish in China without increasing its regulatory and reputational risks in the United States is now over,” said Stone Fish. “Both Beijing and Washington want companies to increasingly choose whose laws, values, and customers they will serve. It’s a difficult but essential choice.”

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