In something of a global communications chess match, critics of the sponsors say the companies enable human rights violations in China with their silence and patronage, while the sponsors - if pressed hard enough to discuss the issue at all - say their engagement helps bring new openness and change to the region.
Certainly the Olympics present an unprecedented opportunity to reach the highly important Chinese market - a boon to any brand looking to expand its global presence.
The criticism about sponsorship of the Beijing Games is bound to, at some point, build some ill will for the companies being targeted, judging by the success of activist groups so far. Steven Spielberg quit as artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies as a result of Chinese business involvement in Darfur, and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would skip the opening ceremonies because of the host country's record on human rights issues.
Perhaps sponsors' strategy of trying to avoid the political aspect of the Olympics will work this time around. But companies and their PR agencies should think twice if they believe that dodging the political discussion will work permanently. In an age where consumers are inclined to support companies that have good social policies, those that address the issue head on will be able to build brand equity with these engaged consumers. That's a strategy that will truly pay off in the long run across the globe.