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How has China used the Winter Olympics to shape its image?

Despite public appearances at the Olympics, the outside world still remains skeptical over the safety of skier Peng Shuai

Despite public appearances at the Olympics, the outside world still remains skeptical over the safety of skier Peng Shuai

After athletes from around the world spent two weeks competing in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, many believe the event offered an opportunity for China to try and reshape its international image.

Earlier this month, the US initiated a diplomatic boycott of the game with other democratic countries and human rights organizations, accusing Beijing of "sportswashing" its controversial human rights record.

It didn't take long for the Chinese government to unleash its own countermeasures. During the opening ceremony, China appointed Nordic-combined athlete Zhao Jiawen and Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang to light the Olympic cauldron, in a move that received widespread condemnation from human rights activists and foreign governments.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described Beijing's choice as an attempt to distract the international community from China's human rights abuses. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said they viewed the move as "a lovely concept" and denied considering Yilamujiang's ethnicity when approving the proposal.

Questions over Peng Shuai

Apart from appointing a Uyghur athlete as a torchbearer, another athlete that has caught the world's attention is Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose wellbeing has been the focus of global concern since last November. Her sudden disappearance from the public eye triggered a diplomatic boycott by several democratic countries.

However, during the Winter Olympics, Peng not only held a private meeting with IOC President Thomas Bach, but also carried out her first interview with a Western media outlet since she allegedly accused former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. In the interview, however, Peng denied making sexual assault allegations against Zhang, and said she had never disappeared.

Following her public appearance at a few Olympic competitions, the outside world still remains unconvinced of her safety, as some activists described the interview as another "forced confession" while the French journalist who interviewed Peng said it's impossible to determine if Peng was safe or not.

Yangyang Cheng, a Fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, said there is a degree of "clumsiness" in the Chinese government's approach to publicity during the Winter Olympics. "Parading a Uyghur athlete or Peng Shuai is like checking a box without any sincerity of intention or real effort to address the serious issues of human rights," she told DW.

"However, the blunt approach serves its purpose: it betrays an arrogance, which Beijing might call 'confidence,' in being comfortably at the center and in a position of power, and treating issues like ethnic oppression and sexual violence like minor nuisances," she added.

Tobias Zuser, a lecturer at the Global Studies Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said that instead of gaining recognition, China is trying to show its confidence to the international community through the Winter Olympics. "[They are] doubling down on their perspective of controversial issues instead of avoiding criticism altogether," he told DW.

'Politicizing' the Olympics

Prior to the start of the Winter Olympics, the Chinese government had repeatedly criticized the diplomatic boycott as a move to "politicize" the Winter Olympics. It reportedly warned foreign athletes not to make speeches that were against the Olympic spirit. The IOC had also warned that politicization could set a "dangerous precedent" and threaten the future of the games.

However, on February 17, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) made comments about China's stance on Taiwan, while also describing allegations made against China's persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as "lies." The IOC immediately called a meeting with the Chinese organizers following the comments, with IOC President Bach reiterating that both the BOCOG and the IOC were committed to remaining politically neutral.

According to the Olympic Charter, no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted on any Olympic site or venue. However, some experts believe it to be wishful thinking to separate politics from the Olympics. "It's basically impossible to keep them apart," said Tobias Zuser from CUHK.

"Different host countries may set different agendas, and when national identity is put in the foreground then we would usually also see the inclusion of more nationalistic elements," Zuser told DW.

Apart from the controversial comments made by the BOCOG spokeswoman, other experts say the Chinese government has also used the Olympics as an occasion to host political meetings. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the opening ceremony, during which Putin hailed the "unprecedented ties" between the two countries at a time when Moscow is facing growing tension with the West over the Ukrainian crisis.

Meanwhile, Xi also used his meeting with Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez to confirm that the South American country would take part in China's Belt and Road Initiative, according to China's state broadcaster CCTV.

"[Since] few [heads of states] are traveling in the Covid era and even fewer are traveling to China, it's no surprise that the CCP government used the visits of a few foreign VIPs to the Olympics to engage in other meetings," said Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Chinese historian Zhang Lifan says that because China will be putting billions of dollars into the project in Argentina, it's hard to measure the effect of these diplomatic meetings. "All in all, a lot of money is put into the project, but it's hard to gauge the results," he told DW.

Eileen Gu as a national symbol?

Another athlete that has become the center of attention during the Winter Olympics is Chinese-American freestyle ski star Eileen Gu, whose success of winning three medals during the Winter Olympics has been widely reported by both Chinese and foreign media outlets.

When she won her first gold medal on February 8, China's state-run tabloid, the Global Times, described the achievement as "historic." Then when the question about her nationality became the focus of foreign media reporting and online discussions, the tabloid came to defend Gu by describing coverage about her in American media outlets as "negative."

The outpouring of admiration and support for Gu from Chinese state media has drawn some cautious reminders from domestic observers. Hu Xijin, the retired editor-in-chief of Global Times, cautioned Chinese media to avoid overhyping their praise for Gu, as it remains unclear which country she might prefer to be associated with when she becomes older.

While nationalists continue to express their admiration for Gu and her achievements at the Winter Olympics, other Chinese netizens say they find it hard to relate to her rather privileged upbringing. Despite mixed reception, Gu remains overwhelmingly popular on the Chinese internet.

Yangyang Cheng from Yale says that Gu's example helps build the narrative of a Chinese nation that is defined by genetics and not bound by borders. However, she also says it's important for the Chinese public not to over-hype the appeal of Gu beyond individual excellence and aesthetic appeal.

"Few, if any Chinese people in China can relate to Gu's upbringing, so she remains an aspirational figure," she told DW. "In this case, her proximity to whiteness, her American father and American upbringing, helps maintain this fantasy."

Olympics as a domestic spectacle

The media coverage of Gu also reflects the contrast between the Chinese media and foreign media's coverage of the Winter Olympics. The New York Times published a piece last week, describing how questions presented by foreign media outlets and Chinese media outlets reflect the "parallel approach of reporting" that they adopt during the Winter Olympics.

Brady from the University of Canterbury told DW that because Chinese state media is described as "the tongue and threat of the Party," its job is to promote a positive narrative of the Chinese government and its initiatives. "Their coverage of the Beijing Olympics can only be skewed one way, which is promoting a positive narrative and ignoring any negative aspects," she said.

Cheng thinks the stark contrast and Chinese media's positive coverage of the games help Beijing make the case to the domestic audience that Western media and the West are biased against China. "I don't think Chinese state media cares about its reception in the West very much in this case," said Cheng.

With the IOC claiming that almost 600 million people have watched the Winter Olympics in China, Zuser says this may prove that the game is still being relatively well-received domestically. "In the end, I also think that shows the priority for Beijing 2022: as an event that speaks primarily to the citizens of China, and the global audience being less of a concern," said Zuser.

Edited by: Leah Carter