China Takes Soft-Power Gold At Beijing Winter Olympics

THE 2022 BEIJING Winter Olympic Games have concluded. From the Party’s point of view, it will be seen as a winner.

The giant ‘closed loop’ that kept Games in a bubble successfully contained the Covid virus and will be taken as a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy. The US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games by a handful of countries turned out to be an irrelevance. No international corporate sponsor broke ranks. Nor did any athlete speak out, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was compliant with the Alice Through The Looking Glass notion that international sport is not politicised. Human rights fizzled out as an issue.

China improved its medal count to 15 from nine at the previous games, and, more lustrously, nine were gold versus one last lime. Nine golds were also one more than the United States achieved, even if the US team won 10 more medals overall.

National pride was stoked. The games had an audience of 600 million on state TV and were enthusiastically received. US-born Snow Princess Gu Ailing, who won two golds and a silver, became a national icon and the happy face of the Games, seemingly seen everywhere on state TV, advertising billboards and magazine covers. Her mother, Gu Yan, has become a parenting role model on Weibo. Move over, Tiger Mom.

The sad face of the games was that of the Russian skater Kamila Valieva, caught up in a doping scandal that deflected the spotlight of adversity from China as the Games headed for their conclusion. At least internationally; state media did not give Valieva’s case much prominence.

The tough-love treatment of the 15-year old by her coach after failing in one of her events to win an expected gold medal also confirmed these as the Joyless Games in the eyes of many outside China.

The athletes, too, found the strict isolation of life in the Games’ bubble with its relentless Covid testing regime stressful, those put into quarantine after testing positive especially so. This was even less reported by state media than Valieva, which instead shared on social media only positive comments by athletes such as praise for the friendliness of the Games’ volunteers.

None of those complaints will much concern Beijing, for whom these Games were an exercise in soft power projection — as are all Olympics for their hosts, it should be said. As this Bystander noted previously, whereas the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing celebrated China’s coming out in the world, these Winter Games were about reinforcing that this is Xi’s moment.

Domestically, it will have reaffirmed the Party’s leadership competence, especially the centrality of President Xi Jinping, and presented a glowing picture of China’s presence on a world stage on China’s terms. The success of these Games is an important milestone for Xi on the road to the Party Congress later this year.

Internationally, the Beijing Winter Olympics will have sent the same message as to the domestic audience. However, it will be read differently; China is a rising power that will pursue its path regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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