What you need to know
China arguably won a participation trophy at the 2018 FIFA World Cup as Chinese fans and corporate sponsors stormed Russia en masse. Can the sports-crazed nation keep wielding its athletic soft power?
By Nina Zhou
Even without a competing team, China rallied a considerable presence at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Logos of Chinese corporate sponsors decorated the venues, and images of enthused Chinese fans flocking to stadiums — over 40,000 — made headlines across several news outlets. The Telegraph credited Chinese viewers for boosting the tournament’s average audience from 623 million across all games in 2014 to an impressive 815 million in 2018 just during the group stage.
China’s World Cup fever is nothing new. As early as 2011, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his wishes for China to qualify for, host and win a World Cup. In 2016, China rolled out an ambitious plan to turn the nation into a soccer powerhouse by 2050. Many schools have since added soccer to their physical education curriculums and popular interest in the sport is rapidly growing. For many Chinese youth, the ultimate goal is to one day win a World Cup in a Chinese stadium.
But what Xi and the Chinese government care about is beyond a World Cup trophy. China’s soccer aspirations reflect a larger movement to reposition sports at the center of the nation’s comprehensive soft power strategy.
China has long understood the importance of its external image. It spends around US$10 billion annually on various public relations initiatives. Projects like the Belt and Road Initiative are at least in part designed to convince the world of China’s role as a world leader. But the recent backlash against Beijing-backed initiatives demonstrates that many countries are skeptical of China’s true intentions.
Beijing wants to use sports to bolster China’s image. People like sports. Most people understand sports, or at least find sport more entertaining than news on economic partnerships or diplomatic initiatives. International sporting competitions provide a depoliticized platform for host countries to demonstrate leadership and execution. The hope is that sports can allow China to achieve what trade and diplomacy have not: winning the world’s hearts and minds.
The logic behind this strategy is simple, but predicting its success is difficult.
With 2050 decades away, China’s soccer diplomacy ambitions are just that: ambitions. The efficacy of Xi’s decision to embrace sports will be first tested by the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
China is more than familiar with utilizing the Olympics to promote its soft power to a global audience. After the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated an increase in Chinese favorability in most countries, including the United States and Japan. Beijing 2008 celebrated the nation’s reintroduction into the international community.
China’s soccer aspirations reflect a larger movement to reposition sports at the center of the nation’s comprehensive soft power strategy.
In 2022, China will be using its second Olympic moment to showcase a nation that is forward looking and united. Beijing 2022 is about a China that leads by example, advancing President Xi’s vision of a shared future for mankind, with China pioneering the path forward.
Beijing’s choice to bid for the 2022 winter games, despite its meager experience with winter sports, fits this overall theme. China chose to step up at a time when Western states have retreated — both Oslo and Stockholm withdrew their 2022 bids due to domestic pressure against hosting the Olympic games. This echoes a bigger trend of the West retracting inwards, allowing China to swoop in and fill the void. What the West can’t and won’t do, China eagerly does.
Plenty of challenges exist on China’s path to Beijing 2022. Olympic-standard facilities await completion. Athletes need to be recruited to fill all 15 winter sport disciplines, and trained well enough to medal (China only scored nine medals in the 2018 Pyeongchang games). And the lack of snowfall means the games will rely entirely on artificial snow at its mountain venues.
But these realities also make the 2022 Olympic games an excellent opportunity to reinforce the image of a China that is capable, confident and dedicated to its international commitments.
According to Business Insider, China plans to build 800 ski resorts and 650 skating rinks by 2022. More importantly, learning from the criticism of China’s ‘state sport system’ in 2008, party leadership is mobilizing mass participation in winter sports to transform China from a country where elite athletes are trained to win gold medals to a country that enjoys popular participation in sports. The goal is to have 300 million Chinese citizens involved in winter sports by 2025.
The extensiveness of the Chinese effort to deliver a spectacular Winter Olympics that leaves a sustainable legacy is undoubtedly impressive. China wants to present itself as the world’s future. It wants to show that it is politically and economically stable, that it is capable of undertaking massive international projects like hosting the Olympic games, and that its people are united and enthusiastic about the foreign and new. Most importantly, China wants to show the world that its growing power and influence can benefit the entire international community.
China’s shift to improve its sports ability comes at a time of rising concerns about Western disunity. A China that is able to boldly address its shortcomings will reap more than gold medals. Beijing 2022 will reveal whether a good sporting show can win the world’s hearts and minds.
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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.
TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall