Thursday, March 26, 2009

The reasons behind the ban of the Dalai Lama

Wednesday's announcement [Geoffrey York, The Globe and Mail] that the Dalai Lama will be barred from visiting South Africa until after the 2010 World Cup was rather interesting. After all, as the Globe pointed out in their editorial on the matter, this is a country famous for producing civil-rights advocates like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. This move seemed a step back from the recent success of South Africa, and more in tune with the country's ugly past under apartheid.

Government spokesman Thabo Masebe told the Globe the move “would not be in South Africa's best interests.” That depends on the interests you're considering. There's a good reason "Follow the money" is one of the most memorable lines from the film version of All The President's Men, one of my favourite journalism books of all time. You can often learn quite a bit from the greenback trail. Let's try and apply that methodology here and see where it takes us.

South Africa, of course, is hosting the 2010 World Cup, a massive multibillion-dollar event. The World Cup is organized by FIFA, known for shady financial dealings and influence-peddling in the past (see this excellent story by Andrew Jennings on the Swiss bribery trial where FIFA head Sepp Blatter has been named; there are plenty of other examples in his book, Foul). FIFA gets the money to put on lavish World Cups through TV rights deals and sponsorship agreements with global companies such as adidas, Coke, Visa and McDonalds.

Those global companies are always looking to expand their brands into new and emerging markets. One of the most crucial markets for expansion is the People's Republic of China, which boasts over 1.3 billion people and an emerging middle class with significant buying power. The PRC has had significant problems with the Dalai Lama for some time due to his credentials as a Tibetan exile leader, and accused him of orchestrating riots [The Associated Press via MSNBC] in the lead-up to last summer's Olympics. Given the power of the PRC government, it could make either life very difficult or very easy for those companies if it felt like it. That doesn't mean that they're involved with this ban, but it does suggest that they would have strong motivations to help the PRC if asked.

Of course, the sponsors needn't necessarily be involved at all. China is also a key target market for FIFA: 1.3 billion people with substantial purchasing power in an area where soccer has not yet become the dominant game. Given the PRC government's control of the country's media, they have tremendous power to either aid FIFA in their marketing or make it very difficult for anyone in China to watch or follow soccer. FIFA has also been known to exercise substantial political influence before [one example from Andrew Jennings, in the Sunday Herald], so it's not like meddling in international relations would be anything new for them.

There are also options for China to put substantial pressure on South Africa without involving soccer or corporate intermediaries. As York wrote, "The ban is the latest signal of Beijing's growing power and influence in Africa. China has become the top trading partner of many African countries, and China's ruling Communist Party is reported to be one of the biggest financial contributors to the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party." Yeah, that probably didn't hurt their case.

It's not a secret that the PRC is at the back of this. From York's story, we learn that "The Chinese embassy in South Africa has confirmed that it opposed the Dalai Lama's visit. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday that China appreciates any country that takes "measures" against the Dalai Lama." They may or may not have invoked the help of those looking for Chinese support in the soccer and corporate worlds; that's not for me to say without evidence. However, as pointed out above, exerting pressure on South Africa to keep the Dalai Lama out is in line with the key goals of the PRC government. Thus, FIFA and the global companies involved certainly can't oppose this easily without annoying a key government ally they need on their side, and the PRC may have even persuaded them to go along with it. If they felt like it, they could add their voices to those of the PRC and make life even tougher for the Dalai Lama to pick up a few brownie points with the Chinese government. It's business as usual in the world of soccer, but it's a depressing day for humanity and civil rights.

Update: 9:43 P.M. Found some other good takes on the situation. Sam of The Canadian Stretford End calls it "a disgusting move", while Cesar Benoit sees it as a "huge PR blunder".

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