Opinion & Analysis

The Olympics has heaped more pressure on China’s public diplomacy efforts

The Winter Olympics in Beijing has heaped pressure on the Chinese Communist Party's efforts at international diplomacy. Criticism is rife of the games, with many around the world unsupportive of China's hosting. Nick Ross Smith, adjunct fellow from University of Canterbury's National Centre for Research on Europe, analyses the situation. 

Sporting events have long been the “jewels in the crown” of public diplomacy strategies, especially for authoritarian countries that do not have as plentiful soft power resources to call upon.

China is one such country that has become enamoured with hosting international sporting events.

Most famously, the 2008 Beijing Olympics was widely seen as China’s coming-out party: a chance to showcase to the rest of the world not only China’s impressive development but also its culture and historical grandiosity. And despite hiccups – such as problems with pollution, the situation in Tibet, and some notable boycotts – the games were largely seen as a great success for China’s public diplomacy efforts (later complemented by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo).

However, fast forward a decade and a bit and it seems the utility of authoritarian regimes using sporting events as public diplomacy exercises has diminished to the point where it now actually hurts any public diplomacy efforts. As Qatar is finding out with regards to the Football World Cup and Saudi Arabia found out recently with its Formula 1 race, international sporting events bring with it a greater focus on internal issues.

China, too, is experiencing this first-hand at the moment as 14 years on from its hosting of the Summer Olympics, Beijing is hosting the Olympics again, this time the Winter Olympics. Rather than being a centrepiece in a public diplomacy charm offensive, the return of the Olympic torch to China is shining an uncomfortable light on a number of internal situations in China that hurt its international reputation and standing.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the CCP has attempted to internationally brand China as a strong but responsible international actor. China has sought out the role of an emerging world leader with “international public goods” to offer, especially “Chinese wisdom” and “Chinese solutions” in international organisations.

But, China’s dreams of winning over international audiences with its vision of a “peaceful rise” built of the positive aspects of Chinese culture and history has been an unequivocal failure so far. Issues such as the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the alleged obfuscation of the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the bullying of smaller countries like Lithuania (among others) have turned many audiences against China.

China’s international reputation has hit rock bottom, especially in the Western world where China is struggling for friends.  

Rather than providing a launchpad for China to re-assert a more positive international image, the Winter Olympics has merely drawn more international attention to the ongoing criticisms of China. 

The lead up to the Olympics was dominated by the countries that opted to diplomatically boycott the event – the United States, the United Kingdom Australia, Japan, and Canada (among others) all decided to not send official representatives to the opening ceremony.

Of course, hosting the Olympics is not just an exercise in public diplomacy for Beijing; it is also important – perhaps even more so – for the CCP’s management of the state-society relationship in China. In other words, hosting internationally reputable events like the Olympics demonstrates to the domestic populace that China has reached the status of an international great power and that the core goal of “national rejuvenation” is being achieved. Although, the failure of any “heavyweight” international leaders, bar Vladimir Putin, to attend the opening ceremony surely hurts the effectiveness of the Winter Olympics to push this narrative.  

The irony is that much of China’s recent international public diplomatic behaviour has served its domestic audience more than international ones – which contradicts the purpose of public diplomacy. Take for example the “wolf warrior diplomacy” that has become a common trend in China’s international interactions in recent years. This kind of behaviour might appeal to the nationalists at home that feel China is still being “humiliated” by the West, but it only works to further undermine China’s public diplomacy efforts by presenting China as a belligerent bully.

The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics offered a glimpse of the tightrope China is walking between the domestic and international.

Seemingly in an effort to demonstrate that, contrary to international opinion, it does not treat Uyghur people badly, China elected to have one of its Olympians of Uyghur descent, the cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony.

Domestically, state media ran videos of Yilamujiang’s family watching her light the cauldron. Furthermore, a quote from Yilamujiang which stated that “China has done everything it can for me, and what is left for me to do now is to train hard and bring glory to the country” was widely used, along with quotes from her mother which also praised the government. This all served to demonstrate the “ethnic unity” that the CCP claims China, unlike the United States, has.

While such a showcase might play well domestically – although it seems this was merely a flash in the plan as after a disappointing race, Yilamujiang has faded back into obscurity – it has had the reverse effect internationally. The decision to choose an athlete of Uyghur descent has been widely ridiculed as a cynical effort by Beijing to pull the wool over the eyes of international audiences. And if anything, it has likely simply generated more international headlines that link this event to the accusations being levied against the CCP about its treatment of the Uyghurs.

The Olympics still have more than a week to run and Chinese officials are surely nervous about the prospect of an athlete (or athletes) publicly criticising China in front of millions of domestic and international viewers. Domestically this will be seen as unacceptable, and the expectation will be for strong sanctions. However, internationally, the expectation will be that freedom of speech should be respected.

Officials will not be able to find a win-win solution if such a protest occurs.

Ultimately, the current Winter Olympics are showing that international sporting events have lost their utility for public diplomacy and that, in this era of highly attentive and integrated online audiences, they are a microscope that is used to appraise and critique the hosting country. Thus, rather than a celebration of Chinese development, culture, and hospitality, the Olympics have put China on trial in the international court of public opinion. 

- Asia Media Centre