In normal times, the lead up to a major sporting event such as the Beijing Winter Olympics is accompanied by a flurry of bad news stories, which then give way to a global focus on the sports and performances as the event gets underway, before attention turns to the next major sporting attraction. These are not normal times, though. First, the Beijing Games are taking place during a global pandemic; second, the backdrop to these Games is a decline in the number of states willing to host them and the deterioration of Sino-US relations. Finally, the ‘Western’ liberal democratic model of governance that Washington – and many other states – espouse is under threat from a successful alternative ‘made in China’. For this reason, there is likely to be continuing media interest in China beyond the closing ceremony.
The appeal of hosting an Olympics, once seen as the ‘must have’ accessory for traditional liberal democracies and ‘emerging’ states, has waned massively. Where there were 11 bidders for the 2004 Summer Games, only two put their hat in the ring for 2024. China won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics after beating (by four votes) the only other challenger, Kazakhstan - where just last month riots led to a significant number of civilian deaths. Additionally, as concerns about global climate change reach fever pitch, it would appear irresponsible to award the Winter Olympics to a country with little to no snow in February. Instead, all events requiring snow will take place on artificial man-made material pumped out through ‘snow-making’ machines.
China is neither a democratic nor an ‘emerging’ state, and its desire for hosting the Games is instead to highlight its economic and political ascendance - the same ascendance that forms the root of Sino-US tensions. The Presidency of Donald Trump saw a rapid deterioration in China-US relations, reaching the lowest point since the détente of the 1970s. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the bombastic and combative style of the former President, but the continuation of tensions under President Biden shows that opposition to China is not a partisan issue and is borne out of bigger concerns. In recent years, there have been a number of ‘flashpoints’ for the increase in Sino-US tensions: maritime claims in the South China Sea, US support for Taiwan, Chinese support for nuclear-armed North Korea, accusations of human rights violations, and of course the origin of COVID-19. Yet, overshadowing – and perhaps inciting – these incidents, is one factor: the growth in power of China, and the threat that poses to the US-led status-quo.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America was not left without adversaries – but it was left without comparable adversaries. The Chinese ‘economic miracle’ has changed that, with Beijing’s GDP as a proportion of the US’s increasing from 6% in 1990 to 40% in 2010, and 70% in 2020. This has gone hand in hand with the development of a Chinese high-tech manufacturing sector, and an increasingly smaller technological gap between the two states. Economic competition has also spilled over to the geopolitical arena – with China undertaking a vast naval and military build-up, aiming to develop the capabilities to protect the trade routes that its export-focused economy relies upon, whilst the US seeks to stymie the rise of a state that could realistically pose a threat to its position as the sole global superpower.
If China is on its way to the superpower status, then hosting global sports mega-events is only natural. The majority of states seek to derive ‘soft power’ from sporting spectacles in line with Joseph Nye’s original definition of soft power as attempting to use influence and attraction to get others to do what you want without recourse to military force and economic power. ‘Soft power’ is a ‘Western’ concept and China’s (and Russia’s) understanding of it is naturally informed by their communist heritage. Instead of using sports events to ‘attract’ foreign publics, China appears more interested in bolstering regime support, national identity and a type of statecraft that contrasts with the dominant ‘Western’ paradigm.
Different conceptions of what ‘soft power’ is help explain why the diplomatic boycott, first initiated by the US, will be largely ineffective, given that China is not looking to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of foreign publics. The US announced the diplomatic boycott of the Games due to human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslim population, actions on restricting the freedom of Hong Kong residents and the crackdown on anti-government protests, and recently, the Communist Party treatment of Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai. A string of other democratic countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, joined the diplomatic boycott, meaning that no government officials will attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. In Asia, Japan stated that it will follow through with the boycott by not sending high-level government officials, but it will send Olympic officials and athletes. However, it is interesting to note that countries like South Korea and France said that they will not participate in the diplomatic boycott, citing its ineffectiveness as a key reason.
China’s – and the Communist Party’s - key motive for hosting Beijing 2022 seems to be to show its ascending power domestically, regionally (within East Asia), and internationally (toward superpower status). While the diplomatic boycott is likely to be ineffective, further repercussions of this event could be pressure on the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to select countries according to their human rights record and whether they have the requisite infrastructure in place – in this case, snow. Many of the main sponsors who bankroll such sports mega-events have had to scale back their marketing campaigns due to the controversy surrounding the Beijing Games. As sad as it sounds, it is possible that the future, possible loss of revenue could actually force the IOC to finally begin to act more morally responsible when choosing future hosts of the Olympic Games.