OUR MAN AMONG the muddied oafs tells us that China continues strictly to enforce the non-politicisation of sport. Chinese broadcasters reportedly intend to take English Premier League football matches off the air this weekend because of the English clubs’ planned shows of support for Ukraine.
The BBC says that team captains will wear armbands in Ukraine’s colours of blue and yellow. Stadium screens will display ‘Football Stands Together’ in front of the country’s flag. Similar shows of opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been made at matches played over the past week. FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, has suspended the Russian national team and clubs from its competitions.
This follows the International Paralympic Committee’s banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics, which President Xi Jinping opened today in the Bird’s Nest stadium without mentioning absentees.
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.
THE BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS is throwing a sideways spotlight on national identity. It is focused on Gu Ailing (above), the 18-year old Calfornia-born skier who has won a gold medal competing for China.
The issues it raises are complex. They concern the binariness of national identity, the intertwining of ethnicity and nationality as a basis for state, and state use of sport and athletes to project national power.
Gu was born, raised and still lives in the United States, where she goes by the given name Eileen. Her father is American; her mother is Chinese. Gu Yan came to the United States as a post-graduate biochemistry student and subsequently pursued a career there in finance. Her daughter switched her sporting affiliation from the United States to the country of her mother’s birth, at 15 years old by when she was already a rising star in US skiing.
Gu Ailing is far from unique among athletes in choosing to represent a country other than that of their birth. Elite sport finds it convenient to take a multigenerational view of nationality; eligibility can be derived from grandparents. Many of the Senegalese football team that recently won the Africa Cup of Nations, for example, were born in France, not Senegal, although they have family roots there.
Our man on the slopes tells us that Gu is among around a dozen foreign-born Chinese Winter Olympics team members, including US-born figure skaters (Beverly) Zhu Yi and (Ashley) Lin Shan, and at least five US-born ice hockey team members.
Gu’s nationality has been a matter of some speculation. As the daughter of a Chinese mother born in China, Gu would be a Chinese citizen regardless of where she was born. That she was born in San Francisco would also make her a US citizen.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be nationals of the countries they represent and has said that Gu ‘acquired Chinese nationality in 2019’, and submitted a copy of her passport to it that year in connection with her change of affiliation.
The United States recognises dual nationality. China, however, does not, although not recognising it and turning a blind eye to it if needs be, are different matters.
Gu has been evasive about whether she has renounced her US citizenship. Instead, she portrays herself as a bi-national. She has repeated the line that ‘when I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese’ that she used at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, her first major competition in her new national colours.
That sentiment may strike a chord among many other biracial children and the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who find themselves shuttling between two heritages. However, most of those people will not be high-profile individuals. Gu is a model and a paid ‘face’ for several international brands, as well as an Olympian who chose to switch her affiliation to a nation the land of her birth considers a geopolitical rival.
There are plenty of reasons for Gu to have opted to represent China. There is strong cultural affinity: she was raised by the maternal side of her family (her grandmother was an engineer with the Ministry of Transport), speaks accentless Mandarin and spent time in China every year as a child. There may be commercial considerations: she also has multi-million dollar brand endorsements in China, where she is lauded as the country’s ‘Snow Princess’; at 18, she may be laying a long-term geopolitical and macroeconomic bet on the future.
One reason that can be ruled out is that it gave her an easier shot at getting to the Beijing Games. She is world-class in her sport, as her gold medal testifies, and would walk into any country’s Winter Olympics team.
She has said that her motivation is that she has a greater opportunity to be a role model to young skiers in China, where winter sports are just taking off, than in the United States. Winter sports are popular recreationally there, but professionally, they only really get their place in the sun once every four years when the Winter Olympics come round.
Gu is accomplished, self-assured and a person who wants to leave her mark on the world. Yet, going from US athlete to Chinese athlete is a path less skied, especially when US-China relations are cutting up rough. Gu has been vilified on US social media for her choice, although that can be a dark place at the best of times everywhere. Zhu Yi was vilified on Weibo for her error-ridden performances.
There is also no escaping that sport and politics are bedfellows whether the athletes like it or not or whether they choose to use their sporting celebrity as a political platform. Just as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing were used by authorities to promote China’s arrival in the world, these Games are being used to promote the idea that this is the moment for President Xi Jinping and his vision of the new China revitalised.
Gu has been impressive in appearing to remain apolitical during the Games. Her deft deflections of questions about her citizenship were matched by that of a question about the presence of tennis star Peng Shuai — that she’s ‘grateful that [Peng] is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again’.
While not an overtly political comment that would have opened her to criticism in one or other of her homelands, her answer was no less political than her decision to give her first post-gold medal-winning interview to the newspaper of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the top anti-corruption agency.
The question is how sustainable will her stance be, especially once she is back in the United States. There is no indication that Gu will move her domicile to China. In the autumn, she will attend Stanford University, one of her mother’s almae matres (Gu Yan is also a graduate of Peking University).
Outside the Olympic bubble, it is a different world. It is also an increasingly nationalist one in which US attitudes towards China are hardening and vice versa. She will, for example, be pressed in the United States to explain why she endorses the sports apparel brand Anta, which is open in its use of cotton from Xinjiang, a region from which the United States now bans imports, citing human rights abuses.
Whether she likes it or not and no matter how much she dissembles about it, her sporting success for China has made her a prominent Chinese public figure.
Given the current reduction of personal contacts between China and the West at all levels, anyone who can bridge the two should be welcomed. After winning her gold medal, Gu said, ‘I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese … Both [countries] continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity.’
This Bystander hopes that she is not being Pollyannaish, especially given China’s ‘whole of society’ approach to countering foreign adversaries. The narrative of China as a force for global unity and the non-politicisation of sport is one that Beijing is currently advancing. State media has reported Gu’s comments about being Chinese in China but American in the United States yet still identifying her as ‘of China’.
However, China also strongly advances the primacy of the Chinese model of everything from governance to sovereignty and the rules of the international order.
Should the political imperative for the narrative that Gu currently embodies change, that nuanced distinction will be less useful to a country in which ethnic, national, state and Party identity are closely intertwined, and nationalism is rising. Divided loyalty might then become untenable and equal identity along with it for as long as there are nation states.
THE WINTER OLYMPICS in Beijing, which formally open on February 4, may turn out well for China, but less so for the city itself, at least in the short term.
Covid-19 precautions have prevented the influx of spectators that usually provide host cities with a tourism and spending boost and some burnishing of their reputation as a destination city.
The customary shutting down of nearby industrial plants such as steel mills to ensure blue skies for the duration of the games will reduce output and construction. The closures for these Games have been more widespread than for the 2008 Summer Olympics because the two satellite venues, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which is over the border in neighbouring Hebei, are so far from the city centre.
Beijing is dealing with outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid-19. The 96 cases recorded since mid-January are a trifling number by international standards but not by China’s. It is the city’s highest number of cases since June and July 2020.
Additional control measures introduced in recent days will further dampen activity in the city. With the Games running to February 20, followed by the Winter Paralympics and the annual national legislative sessions in March, the restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time.
Authorities would not want an embarrassing failure of their ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards the virus during the games.
This has already forced the participating athletes to be contained within a tightly sealed Games’ bubble, and the ban on spectators save for a small, hand-selected few, including fewer world leaders than Beijing would have liked given the US-led diplomatic boycott over Xinjiang.
In the long-term, the city will benefit from the construction and transport links already completed for the games, especially if it enables Beijing to develop a winter sports industry in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou once the pandemic has passed.
Creating a national winter sports industry is an official goal despite a lack of tradition in snow sports, but one in which the milestones are being dutifully hit ahead of the showpiece Games.
The officially reported total costs for the Games are $3.9 billion, well above the $1.6 billion estimated for operational costs when awarded in 2014. However, that is par for the course for any Olympics.
However, it is unlikely the Games will be as financially austere as portrayed. Some estimates have put the cost at ten times the official number once all the transport and infrastructure costs are added, including capital improvements to some of the venues used for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. For comparison, the actual cost of the Sochi Winter Olympics is estimated at $60 billion in 2022 dollars.
There is nothing unique about an Olympics being portrayed as cheaper to stage than they genuinely cost. However, putting on this edition of the Games successfully and cheaply in the middle of a global pandemic is intended as both a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy and a projection of global power.
Also likely to be quietly ignored in the razzmatazz is the production of artificial snow. The Beijing Winter Olympics will be the first to rely almost entirely on fake snow in the absence of the real thing.
This has also raised environmental questions as the Games will need to draw more than 220 million litres of water to generate it from a region that is already suffering from increasing aridity.
How much of the final bill will be picked up centrally, and how much by the city is not publically known.
Significant contributions by private companies will offset part of the costs. There are 45 local sponsors of the Games, in addition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s 14 international sponsors, all hoping to dodge reputational risks from human rights issues. Many have been untypically quiet promotionally ahead of the games, at least internationally; their Olympic-themed advertising campaigns have been in full swing in China.
The IOC itself will make its customary contribution to the Games’ operating budget, in this case, $880 million. Like its international sponsors, it is distancing itself from human rights issues, although it may virtue signal via a public if controlled meeting with the unaccountably low-profile tennis star Peng Shuai. Unlike the following two sets of Games in Paris and Milan, the IOC did not require the host city for the Beijing Olympics to sign a human rights agreement.
Beijing is a $630 trillion economy. Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin might like to reflect on the fact that three Beijing’s would be a more significant economic entity than the entire Russian economy.
A few billion dollars here or there to support the Games will not break Beijing economically, even if there is an opportunity cost to losing any stimulus effect from the Games, and, as with all Olympics, the legacy value of the construction undertaken will be fuzzy. Further, the city would probably have had to foot much of the additional costs of containing the latest Covid surges.
THE ‘RESOLUTE COUNTERMEASURES’ that Bejing promised to take against the now-announced diplomatic boycott of the Bejing Winter Olympic games by the United States may be just to ignore it.
On Monday, the Biden administration announced that US diplomats would not attend the Games, to be held in February, because of its concerns about China’s human rights record.
US athletes will be free to participate.
Beijing has already banned foreign spectators on public health grounds. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 will create complications in managing the Games and provide convenient cover for any further restrictions if determined politically necessary.
There will be little blowback in the United States for the administration’s decision. Supporting Beijing by attending the Games would be unpopular. If anything, criticism in the United States has been of the administration not imposing a complete boycott.
Similarly, any tit for tat snubs by China will do the administration no harm domestically. It is anyway unlikely that Beijing would ban athletes from boycotting countries.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, responding to a question about the potential for a US diplomatic boycott, trotted out the standard line about not politicising sport, adding that ‘no one cared‘ if US politicians, who were not being invited anyway, came or not. (Technically, invitations to attend the games come from the International Olympic Committee, not the host nation, but we will let that pass.)
The question is whether other Western governments will follow Washington’s lead and downgrade or scrap their official attendance. The United Kingdom and Australia would be the most likely candidates.
A more acid test of US sentiment will be if the extent to which the Games are watched in the United States and whether US multinationals scale back their commercial support for the games, either directly on via advertising and sponsorship of US coverage.
A straw in the wind: in its online news report of the diplomatic boycott, NBC, the US broadcaster with the rights to the Games, embedded a link on how to ‘Watch all the action from the Beijing Olympics live on NBC‘.
Update: Australia says it will join the diplomatic boycott. New Zealand says it will not be sending an official delegation for Covid-19 reasons. France says Europe will respond at an EU level, adding that the EU already sanctions China over Xinjiang. The United Kingdom is sitting on the fence.
Update to the update: The United Kingdom and Canada have now joined the diplomatic boycott.