China has used sports for soft power purposes but it might be coming to an end. US President Joe Biden is considering boycotting the Winter Olympics.
Experts often question if China even exercises soft power like some countries in the English-speaking world do. China’s presence in sports, video games, and big-ticket movies is the hallmark of a different type of soft power. China believes in mixing its soft power with a hard economic power, which often subtly becomes coercion. Through the coercion tactics, Beijing has ensured Taiwan remains sidelined in international sporting events.
The 2008 Summer Olympics established China’s international legitimacy with very minimal opposition. Tibetan activists protested then, but the world turned a blind eye to the uprising in Lhasa. There has been a significant shift since 2008. ‘No Beijing 2022’ is a campaign led by Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Southern Mongolians, and Chinese rights activists. The #BoycottBeijing2022 has become a prominent social media trend on Twitter.
The 2008 Olympics was a personal statement for Xi Jinping, who was in-charge of organising it. 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 feel confident about the upcoming Olympics. A narrative arc between 2008 and 2022 has been built by the state media. The hashtag ‘The same Chinese romance in 2008 and 2022’ was widely used on Weibo.
But we are now at another inflection point. Biden has indicated that the US may boycott the Winter Olympics, while the UK government too said they are mulling a boycott.
If Biden and other leaders decide to boycott the upcoming Olympics, it will mark a shift in relations with China. The separation between sports and politics will disappear.
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Sports personalities are increasingly questioning the artificial separation between politics and sports.
Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics feels strongly about calling out Beijing for its human rights record. Kanter’s activism in support of the Tibetan and Uyghur communities has started a debate within the sporting world about the ethics of supporting the CCP and its agenda.
Kanter’s videos messages have been watched and shared across the world. He is now at odds with other NBA stars such as LeBron James, whom he has chastised for profiting off the Chinese market.
Kanter’s activism breaks the ice within the NBA – a sport very popular in China – which didn’t transpire after the 2019 Daryl Morey tweet in support of Hong Kong protests. China even banned the broadcast of NBA games for almost a year. This time around, games by Boston Celtics – Kanter’s current team – have been censored. Kanter and NBA may not change China, but the pressure keeps mounting.
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Sports and nationalism
In China, sports and nationalism are intertwined as they are in other parts of the world. Players are trained from a young age and are considered State assets. The cultural domination and owning of the sportsperson by the Chinese State is out of the Soviet playbook. But unlike the Soviet Union, China’s economy and society are far more entangled with the rest of the world.
Tennis player Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegation against Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice-premier, have created a perfect storm for the party – a domestic scandal with international ramifications.
Though Zhang isn’t in power anymore, the CCP protects its own even after they leave office. Any negative news about Chinese politicians has been increasingly squashed at the source, as highlighted by the story of China-born Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai. Gui published books carrying sensational revelations about Chinese politicians, and the bookseller was given a 10-year jail sentence.
Beijing has used all tools in its playbook to ensure the Peng scandal blows over.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach’s video call with Peng Shuai failed to make the desired impact as stories about Zhang’s past interactions with Bach surfaced. Before retiring, Zhang oversaw the Beijing Olympics 2022 campaign launch and has been a part of the organisational planning team.
Peng’s body language in the staged events tell us about her plight. People seem to have forgotten about her original allegations against Zhang, and Beijing may have already achieved what it hoped to by staging her appearances.
In China, sports and diplomacy have always found themselves in an entangled web. In 1983, Chinese tennis player Hu Na defected to the US during the 32-nation Federation Cup tournament in Santa Clara.
The US Department of Justice granted Hu Na political asylum, upsetting Deng Xiaoping, who personally demanded her return because she used to play tennis with Wan Li, a former senior Chinese politician who served on the Politburo Standing Committee.
China pursued the dream of becoming a sporting nation in the 1980s through the Olympic gold medal dream. Xi Jinping’s assertive China now feels confident in its sporting prowess as it bags the second-highest number of medals year after year.
Beijing’s old strategy to lure the sports world by offering the promise of the Chinese market may have started to fail. Like 2008, the Beijing 2022 Olympics is once again a different kind of test for Xi Jinping.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)