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China’s Public Diplomacy at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Upcoming Success or Imminent Failure?

0. The Relevance of Sports in Diplomacy: A Legacy Dating Back to Antiquity

Sport has long fulfilled an important role in politics, both domestically and internationally. The ancient Roman poet Juvenal famously coined the phrase panem et circensis or “bread and games” (litt. bread and circuses) – a reference to the Roman polity’s organizing of sports spectacles to appease the people and prevent public revolt, as well as one of the earliest historical examples of the use of sports as a tool for public diplomacy. An even older and more famous example, however, are the ancient Olympic Games. Held for the first time in 776 BC in Olympia, Greece. Athletes from as far away as Spain and modern-day Turkey came to attend these first ever Olympic Games, protected under the inviolable Olympic Truce. Announced months before the start of the Olympic Games, the Truce ensured that all athletes and spectators, from warring and allied states alike, could travel safely to and from the host city state for the duration of the event. Bringing these people from warring city-states together through sports, the ancient Olympics created opportunities for dialogue and diplomacy, contributing to the maintenance of peace in ancient Greece (Syrigos, 2009, pp. 21–22).

Examples such as these show the historical relevance of sporting events as tool for (public) diplomacy and the maintenance of peace. In doing so, they also remind us to look at the relevance of sports in diplomacy today. How does sport continue to be used today to further states’ diplomatic goals? To answer this question, the following article will first look at the significance and effectiveness of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as an attempt by China to present itself favorably to a global audience. Following that, the article will look ahead at the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as a tool in China’s public diplomacy efforts and discuss how effective it is likely to be, based on the lessons learned from 2008.

1. Sports in Contemporary Diplomacy: Public Diplomacy at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

In 2008, the Olympic Games were held in an Asian host city for the fifth time in its modern history, but only for the first time in China. As such, with the motto of “One World, One Dream,” this was the chance for China to show the results of its economic miracle to a global audience, and cultivate China-positive attitudes, both foreign and domestic (C. C. Chen et al., 2012; Economy & Segal, 2008; Yardley, 2008). Sparing no expense in pursuit of its public diplomacy goals, Beijing went on to spent a record 43 billion USD hosting the event, in the same year that the United States and Europe descended into economic disarray under the 2008 global financial crisis, (Griffiths, 2021); a confluence of events that would consolidate what China had believed was long overdue: its return to the world stage as a global (super)power (Stephens, 2018). To this day, Chinese media regard the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony as one of the most “breathtaking and memorable” moments in contemporary Chinese history, celebrating it for the bridge it built between China and the rest of the world (Zheng & Liu, 2019). And yet, how effective was China’s public diplomacy really during the 2008 Beijing Olympics in cultivating positive attitudes towards the “new” China?

At first glance, China’s Olympic diplomacy may seem to have had a positive influence on global attitudes towards China. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted by the world-renowned Pew Research Center in 2008, in the run up to the Olympics, found growing negative views towards China among citizens of 24 countries around the world (see fig. 1). The main reasons: growing fears over China’s military power and its indirect involvement in the genocide in Darfur, which incited a global advocacy campaign that dubbed the Beijing Olympics as the “Genocide Olympics” (Cosima Budabin, 2011; Farrow & Farrow, 2007; Kristof, 2008). Then, in 2009, post-Olympics, global attitudes turned decisively more positive (see fig. 1). Over that same period, we also see an increase in views of China as a partner, along with a slight decrease in views of China as an enemy (see fig. 2). As such, it is unsurprising that many within China and the West have concluded that the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a “soft-power victory” for China (Griffiths, 2021; Pang, 2008; Zheng & Liu, 2019). Yet, closer examination reveals a more complicated image.

Figure 1. China Favorability Trends. Positive changes in attitude towards China compared to the previous year are marked green, negative changes in attitude compared to the previous year are marked red. Adapted from Pew Global Attitudes Project (2009, p. 44).

Figure 2. Is China More of a Partner or More of an Enemy? Pew Global Attitude Survey results for 2008 (left) and 2009 (right), for the 14 countries that were polled in both years. Adapted from Pew Global Attitudes Project (2008, p. 38; 2009, p. 45).

Over the years, several scholars have researched the impacts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both domestically and internationally, painting a much more nuanced picture of China’s public diplomacy “success.” Manzenreiter (2010), for example, has looked at a wide array of global opinion polls and attitude research, before eventually concluding that China has “failed to win over the hearts of Western publics” at the Olympics due to an amalgamation of causes related to preexisting negative attitudes towards China over its growing power and its implication in human rights abuses in Darfur. Finlay & Xin (2010) reach a similar conclusion in their research on public attitudes towards China before and after the Olympics in the US and Japan. However, they do conclude that, at least in the case of Japan, the Olympics opened up new avenues for portraying Sino-Japanese relationships in a more positive light. Lastly, Askew (2009) saw China’s efforts result in success, but noted that the effectiveness of China’s Olympic diplomacy was greatly diminished by ongoing discussions in Western media on Chinese human rights abuses, which were in fact given increasingly greater emphasis under the spotlight of the Olympic Games. These researches together suggest that, if one may call China’s international public diplomacy at the 2008 Olympic Games a victory at all, it is perhaps best characterized as a pyrrhic or merely marginal one.

The image for China’s domestic success, however, is decisively different. Research on domestic results of China’s Olympic diplomacy are overwhelmingly positive, indicating significant increases among Chinese people in favorable attitudes towards their government, national identity & national pride and socio-economic developments (Askew, 2009; F. Chen & Tian, 2015; Liu et al., 2014; Manzenreiter, 2010; Meng & Li, 2011; Zhang et al., 2013; Zhou & Ap, 2008). As such, it would be entirely apt to characterize China’s public diplomacy a grand domestic success, but only a marginal international success, which puts both Chinese and Western reports on the 2008 Olympic Games as a diplomatic victory for China in a significantly different light. While these differences in international vs. domestic results could be due to a variety of elements, such as differences in the sociocultural backgrounds of the Chinese people and peoples overseas, the main culprit could be differences in the ways in which foreign media are organized in their respective countries. Mazenreiter (2010) argues, for example, that the national variations in state control over media narratives, are the most likely element to have negatively impacted Chinese Olympic diplomacy abroad. Knowing now how the 2008 Beijing Olympics were used as a tool for public diplomacy by China, and knowing what results it yielded; What diplomatic significance may we expect there to be for the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

2. Looking Ahead: the Diplomatic Significance of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Besides the fact that both events are Olympic Games, there are many similarities between the environments in which the 2008 Beijing Olympics took place and in which the 2022 Beijing Olympics are set to take place. Unsurprisingly, it is already clear that China is once again planning to use the Olympics as focusing moment for its public diplomacy efforts, as would any organizing country. Under the overarching goal of “enhancing the friendship among the people in different countries” (Beijing Sports University Centre for Olympic Studies, 2021, p. 96), China has already organized several Olympics-related events around the world, in an effort to “[enable] people around the world to experience and understand Chinese culture” (Beijing Sports University Centre for Olympic Studies, 2021, p. 98). Additionally, Beijing has welcomed diplomats from over 30 countries to visits to the Zhangjiakou 2022 Olympic Winter Games venue in Northeastern China (CGTN, 2021). Domestically, the Organizing Committee’s Legacy Report furthermore stated sweeping goals for making Chinese society more inclusive and harmonious, and for enhancing the socio-economic situation of the Chinese people (Beijing Sports University Centre for Olympic Studies, 2021).

Figure 3. “Chinese Consul General in New York Huang Ping delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the Hello Panda Festival at Citi Field baseball park in New York, the United States, on Dec. 6, 2019.” Retrieved from Xinhua (2019).

Internationally, however, China has met with a wall of criticism that is certain to cripple its public diplomacy efforts. The 2008 characterization of “Genocide Olympics” has been revived in Western discourse on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing (Breuninger, 2021; Kristof, 2021), and calls for boycotts of the event over human rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang appear eminently comparable to those in 2008 over Chinese involvement in the Darfur Genocide. Similarly, fears over China’s growing power have only grown since 2008, and foreign attitudes towards China have become more negative and polarized than ever over the past years (Pew Research Center, 2021; Silver et al., 2019, 2020, 2021). These decreasingly favorable views of China in the run up to the Olympics are yet another parallel among many between today and 2008, suggesting that we may see similar public diplomacy results from the 2022 Beijing Olympics as from the 2008 Olympic Games. Having noted these parallels, however, what differences might there be between 2008 and today?

First, and perhaps most important, is the fact that international views of China are today more negative and polarized than we have seen in many years, with the United States and Europe, as well as many other countries/regions taking increasingly competitive and critical stances towards China. At the same time, public opinion polls within China suggest that Chinese opinions on Western countries have soured significantly, whilst national pride and confidence have grown (Global Times, 2021). These important differences would suggest the following two things. First, China is fighting a significantly more difficult uphill battle with its Olympic diplomacy in 2022 than it was in 2008, meaning that any international diplomatic success is likely to not so much improve attitudes towards China, but rather to prevent attitudes from dropping further. Second, as Chinese pride has grown over the years and as criticism of China has increased, the 2022 Olympics are perhaps even more likely to boost domestic views of the Chinese government, widening the gap between the domestic and international effectiveness of China’s Olympic diplomacy.

All in all, it seems likely that the 2022 Olympic Games will help China achieve its domestic goals, whilst it will struggle immensely to achieve any international successes. Unless it manages to temper international criticisms over Xinjiang and adopts a posture that is able to convince other nations of its benevolence, the best China can hope for might be that the Olympics will achieve some degree of diplomatic damage control. Ultimately, however, only the future will tell whether these predictions will come true. Until then, we will just have to wait and see where international calls for boycotts lead to and whether or not China achieves any diplomatic breakthroughs with its critics before the Olympics commence.



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