Xi Jinping is planning to attend the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia on February 7. The official announcement, made by China’s Foreign Ministry, noted that this would be the “first time for the Chinese President to attend such a major international sports event held by a foreign country.”
So if a Chinese president has never before attended the Olympics (except, of course, for the 2008 games in Beijing), why choose now? One theory is that China is becoming increasingly involved in the sort of public diplomacy that the Olympics represent. Huang Yaling, secretary-general of the China Sport Science Society, told Xinhua that “President Xi’s attendance shows to the world China’s belief in promoting the development of the Olympics and China’s aspiration for a peaceful and beautiful world.” Image-building is definitely a factor.
Still, it’s interesting that Xi would use the Winter Olympics to make this point. By their own admission, China has little interest in the winter sports that will be on display in Sochi. In a press conference, Deputy Sports Minister Yang Shu’an said China was only a “middle” country in this field, citing a “problem of imbalance and a lack of popularity in for winter sports in China.” Clearly there are other concerns at play rather than a simple love of sport — Hu Jintao did not attend the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, though China as a whole is far more competitive at summer games.
According to the Foreign Ministry’s statement, Xi’s attendance at Sochi “demonstrates China’s support to the Olympic Games and Russia’s holding of the Winter Olympics.” The second point is the most interesting for China watchers. An article in Xinhua also noted that the visit to Sochi would be Xi’s first trip abroad in 2014, giving the trip to Russia added importance. In a press conference on the trip, Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping confirmed that “Xi is scheduled to meet with Putin” during the Games.
Liu Guchang, a former Chinese ambassador to Russia, told Xinhua that Xi’s visit “will help the two leaders develop a closer personal friendship and work relationship.” Xi and Putin already seem to work well together — the same article further noted that 2013 “witnessed profound progress in the development of China-Russia ties.” In an earlier article for The Diplomat, Mu Chunshan noted that China and Russia have been stepping up their cooperation both bilaterally and on the international stage. Xi obviously hopes to maintain this momentum, and his trip to Sochi is even more a sign of support for Russia than a sign of support for the Olympics.
Xi’s attendance is especially important as several other world leaders, including German president Joachim Gauck and United States president Barack Obama, have decided not to attend. There has been international outrage over Russia’s new law banning homosexual “propaganda,” which many gay rights advocates believe provides carte blanche for discrimination against the LGBT community. This concern, in addition to more traditional Western disapproval over Russian human rights violations, has caused pressure on international leaders to boycott the Sochi games. In this context, Reuters called Xi’s decision to attend “a positive development for Putin.”
China faced similar human rights criticisms before the Beijing Games in 2008. In particular, concerns over a crackdown in Tibet sparked a series of protests during the European leg of the Olympic torch relay. Due to concerns over human rights violations in China, U.S. politicians like then-Senator Hillary Clinton urged then-President George W. Bush to skip the opening ceremonies, although he did attend.
China likely has this experience in mind as its media reiterates its stance that the Olympics should not be a forum for political issues, including human rights. Li Xing, a professor of Russian and Asian affairs at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times that Xi’s trip to Moscow “demonstrates great support for Russia, which is under dual pressure from criticism [over human rights] and the terrorism threat.” Xi’s decision to attend the ceremonies in Sochi will not only express China’s support for Russia, but will act as a rebuttal to the Western-led emphasis on human rights issues. Given that Beijing has put in a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, China’s leaders will continue to be concerned with the way pressure over human rights affects the Olympics Games.