VShina has used sports for soft power purposes, but this could be coming to an end. US President Joe Biden is considering boycotting the Winter Olympics.
Experts often wonder if China even exercises soft power as some countries in the English-speaking world do. China’s presence in sports, video games and big-ticket movies is a mark of a different kind of soft power. China believes in mixing its soft power with hard economic power, which often subtly becomes coercion. Thanks to coercive tactics, Beijing has assured Taiwan stays away from international sporting events.
The 2008 Summer Olympics established China’s international legitimacy with minimal opposition. Tibetan activists protested, but the world turned a blind eye to the Lhasa uprising. There has been a significant change since 2008. “No Beijing 2022” is a campaign led by Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, South Mongols and Chinese activists. The # BoycottBeijing2022 has become a big social media trend on Twitter.
The 2008 Olympics were a personal statement for Xi Jinping, who was in charge of organization this. The successful conclusion of the Olympics that year further elevated Xi’s status as a young and promising member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Chinese government and people are confident about the next Olympic Games. A story arc between 2008 and 2022 has been built by state media. The hashtag “The same Chinese romance in 2008 and 2022” has been used extensively on Weibo.
But we are now at another inflection point. Biden indicated that the United States could boycott the Winter Olympics, while the British government too noted they are thinking of a boycott.
If Biden and other leaders decide to boycott the next Olympics, it will mark a change in relations with China. The separation between sport and politics will disappear.
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Sports personalities are more and more examination the artificial separation between politics and sport.
Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics is very committed to calling out Beijing for its human rights record. Kanter’s activism in favor of the Tibetan and Uyghur communities has sparked debate in the sports world about the ethics of supporting the CCP and its agenda.
Kanter’s video messages have been viewed and shared around the world. He is now at odds with other NBA stars such as LeBron James, whom he berated for taking advantage of the Chinese market.
Kanter’s activism breaks the ice in the NBA – a very popular sport in China – which has not sweat after Daryl Morey’s tweet from 2019 in support of the Hong Kong protests. China even banned the broadcast of NBA games for nearly a year. This time around, games for the Boston Celtics – Kanter’s current team – have been censored. Kanter and the NBA may not change China, but the pressure keeps mounting.
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Sport and nationalism
In China, sport and nationalism are interlaced as they are in other parts of the world. The players are qualified from an early age and are considered state property. Chinese state cultural domination and athlete possession is outside the Soviet playbook. But unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese economy and society are much more tied to the rest of the world.
Tennis player Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations against former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli created a storm for the party – a domestic scandal with international ramifications.
Although Gaoli is no longer in power, the CCP protects his people even after leaving office. Any negative news about Chinese politicians has increasingly been squashed at the source, as the story of Chinese-born Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai points out. Gui published books wearing sensational revelations about Chinese politicians, and bookseller sentenced to 10 years in prison phrasing.
Beijing has used all the tools of its strategy to ensure that the Peng scandal ends.
Video of the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach call with Peng Shuai failed to have the desired impact as stories about Gaoli’s past interactions with Bach surfaced. Before retiring, Gaoli supervised the launch of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games campaign and was a part of the organizational planning team.
Peng’s body language in the staging events tell us of his fate. People seem to have forgotten his initial allegations against Gaoli, and Beijing may have already achieved what it hoped for by staging his appearances.
In China, sport and diplomacy have always found themselves in a tangled web. In 1983, Chinese tennis player Hu Na defected in the United States at the 32 Nations Federation Cup tournament in Santa Clara.
The US Department of Justice granted political asylum to Hu Na, upsetting Deng Xiaoping, who personally required her return because she was playing tennis with Wan Li, a former senior Chinese politician who served on the Politburo Standing Committee.
China pursued the dream of becoming a sports nation in the 1980s through the Olympic gold medal dream. Xi Jinping’s assertive China now feels confident in its athletic prowess as it wins the second-highest number of medals year after year.
Beijing’s old strategy of attracting the sports world by offering the promise of the Chinese market may have started to fail. Like 2008, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games are once again a different test for Xi Jinping.
The author is a freelance columnist and journalist. He is currently pursuing an MA in China-focused International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. He was previously a Chinese media reporter for the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Opinions are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)
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