Assessing the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Soft Power, Politics, and the Future of the Games

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Assessing the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Soft Power, Politics, and the Future of the Games

Insights from Susan Brownell.

Assessing the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Soft Power, Politics, and the Future of the Games
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Susan Brownell professor of anthropology in the department of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and internationally recognized expert on the Olympics and Chinese sports is the 315th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

What image did China intend to showcase through the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

The main selling point of the bid was that the Games would push forward the growth of winter sports in China. That goal was systematically pursued from beginning to end, which rarely happens with the high-flying goals in bid proposals. But in China’s case, it was part of a national strategy to develop northeastern China as a winter sports destination, stimulating economic development in poor mountain areas. Ski resorts have a huge appeal in East Asia because they represent the leisured lifestyle of global elites, so entering into the worldwide circuit of luxury ski resorts was one more demonstration that China has “arrived.”

Explain the role of sports in China’s projection of “soft power.”

Sports also occupy a crucial role in China’s pursuit of “soft power” (the power of an attractive national image). South Korea and Japan had just hosted Olympic Games in 2018 and 2021, and Chinese leadership wanted to keep up with them in the symbolic arms race in East Asia. Winning gold medals is important, and the increased government investment in winter sports helped China to its best-ever third-place ranking in gold medals with nine golds, one more than the U.S.

Following Japan and South Korea, China started recruiting foreign-born athletes to the Olympic team, in apparent violation of the prohibition against dual citizenship. The two gold medals in freestyle skiing won by American-born Eileen Gu, representing China, put China ahead of the U.S. Her popularity with Chinese and American fans, as well as with sponsors (some 30 of them, based in both China and the U.S., including luxury brands like Estee Lauder, Tiffany & Co, and Cadillac) suggested that the dream of Chinese soft power is becoming a reality.

Analyze the effectiveness of the diplomatic boycotts of the U.S. and other countries.

There is no convincing evidence that any Olympic boycotts have accomplished their goals. The anti-apartheid boycotts of the 1970s were at least successful, but they were part of a much larger movement. The U.S.’s boycott of the Moscow 1980 Olympics was a complete failure – the Soviet Union did not pull its troops out of Afghanistan for another nine years and the U.S. later occupied Afghanistan twice as long as the Soviet Union had, discrediting the entire concept. Over a dozen heads of state “boycotted” the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games by not attending, but today no one remembers it, and it had no effect on China’s domestic policies toward Tibetans (the main source of protest at the time). Most of these public relations and diplomatic campaigns have had little or no impact in China or any host country, and the absence of the politicians has been quickly forgotten. The reasonable conclusion is that the 2022 diplomatic boycott will have little to no impact on Chinese governance.

What was the impact of the February 4 meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin at the Beijing Winter Olympics on the principles of the Olympic games?  

During the Beijing 2008 Olympics, U.S.-China relations had seemed better than ever, seen in President Bush’s large entourage and friendly interactions with the Chinese public and leaders. The Chinese leadership might have hoped that this would happen again: The high-profile celebration of the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy” in fall 2021, which emphasized the long and close relationship between the two countries, might have been intended as an overture that U.S. leadership failed to pick up. I believe that President Biden missed an opportunity and, by insulting China with his diplomatic boycott, opened the door for President Putin to step in. Perhaps things would have played out differently if Joe and Jill Biden had been in China during the Games, using the spotlight to express a commitment to the Olympic ideal of world peace while simultaneously articulating their concerns about Chinese (or Russian) policies.

Many Western observers interpreted Putin’s presence and the China-Russia joint statement as a violation of the Olympic spirit, but that is forgetting that the U.S. violated the Olympic spirit first. President Biden’s absence left a vacuum on the stage that was filled by the largely symbolic partnership with Putin – which, as experts suspect, Xi may be regretting now.

Assess how the politicization of sports might impact future Olympic Games.  

The media frenzy can mislead the audience into thinking that the politics surrounding the Olympic Games have become more heated than ever. Actually, since the end of the Cold War, no nations have kept home their athletes in protest and no head of state or national Olympic committee has called for a national boycott. The voices calling for boycotts now come from media-savvy non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are most influential – that take advantage of the international media scrutiny to draw attention to their causes and raise funds. China has been a particularly strong magnet: In 2022 nearly 200 NGOs were involved in Olympic campaigns. But every host country receives harsh criticism.

Politicians also play a role – U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi launched the call to “boycott the opening ceremony” in 2008 and “diplomatic boycott” in 2022, and then NGOs picked up the call and pressured other world leaders to do the same. President Bush did not heed her call in 2008; President Biden did in 2022. Having partly mobilized it, politicians use the pressure created by these advocacy groups to advance their domestic and international agendas.

Olympic Games play a positive role in global society by amplifying the voices of advocacy groups, raising public awareness about injustice, and providing talking points for debates across national borders. I am concerned that the NGOs, politicians, and critics could engage in self-destructive behavior by turning the public away from the games with their extreme negativity, in the process damaging the Olympic platform that benefits their own causes.