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China’s long road to the winter fairy tale

By Claudia Kosser and Mei Zhang

The Germans once dubbed their 2006 World Cup a “summer fairy tale” – a success story that was overshadowed years later by allegations of corruption. But it was a huge event that gave Germany a lot of “soft power”, both inside and outside the country.

Two years later, the People’s Republic of China wrote its own “summer fairy tale” when it hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing for the first time. Now, 14 years later, Beijing is going down in history as the first host city for both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It has been a long road for the country.

After the founding of the People’s Republic, it had turned its back on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1958. It was not until 22 years later that it returned to the Olympic fold, entering the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, USA, with a handful of athletes. The timing was no coincidence: After three decades of isolation under Mao Zedong’s iron rule, China was once again welcomed back in the broader international community in the late 1970s with Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy.

With the economic upswing and its own image in the world improving, China also participated in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and won 32 medals, including 15 gold. The “shameful” track record without any Olympic medals had ended.

The growing number of medals inspired the Chinese government to bring the Olympic fire to their home country as well. The successful bid for 2008 had been submitted seven years earlier. 2001 was also the year China joined the World Trade Organization. The official slogan of the Olympics was “One World, One Dream,” but the true message was a different one: “Hello world, here we are, an emerging power. And we are here to stay.”

The Chinese government rolled out the red carpet for guests and dignitaries from around the world, including then-US President George W. Bush, his wife and daughter, and his father, former US President George H. W. Bush. The family attended the opening ceremony and watched the events. Bush met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other high-ranking officials.

Bush said at the time, “In the long run, America better remain engaged with China, and understand that we can have a cooperative and constructive, yet candid relationship.” It was the prime of US-China relations. But things have changed a lot since then.

China proudly celebrated the perfectly staged Games as a huge success. Criticism of the hosting and boycott calls due to the suppression of the uprising in Tibet a few months earlier did not harm its rise. Especially since its economy was booming with double-digit growth rates, while the industrialized nations were groaning under the consequences of the global economic crisis.

From the Chinese perspective, the successful bid for 2022 under its new President Xi Jinping was another step towards the realization of the “Chinese dream”. Xi wants to strengthen the confidence of the Chinese people in their own culture and increase the country’s international influence. The question remains whether this will work.

Even though the 2022 Winter Olympics will most likely be a political success at home, it is a great challenge for the host country to create a winter fairy tale on the international stage that will have the world dreaming along. The controversies seem far too great. Numerous Western countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics because they accuse China of committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Since its Olympic bid, China has seen greater change than many Chinese dared to dream of. GDP per capita has steadily increased to $10,500 in 2020 compared to $7000 in 2013. As of 2017, China’s economy is the largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity. And according to the Chinese government, extreme poverty has been eliminated since the late 2000s. In recent years, China has surpassed many Western industrialized countries in infrastructure, telecommunications, AI technology, military armament, and space exploration.

For China, this is a vindication to appear more confident and self-assured, to voice ambitions, and to proudly highlight the efficacy of its authoritarian government system. In the West, China has become a strategic competitor-and the “quest” for global political community and recognition is now under different geopolitical auspices. In 2022, the world is more polarized, and Western perceptions of China have changed dramatically, causing the country to struggle in building “soft power”.

At the very least, it is rather likely that Beijing will achieve its domestic political goals. The Winter Olympics will boost the enormous potential of the winter sports consumer market, and the Olympics will further strengthen national pride.

But multinational companies seeking to use this global positioning opportunity to promote their own brands face a challenge: How to express enthusiasm for the Olympics without simultaneously provoking a backlash in the West and subsequently drawing criticism from politicians, human rights groups, and the media?

We believe that companies who master bridging the gap between China and the West will continue to prosper. Those that will not allow themselves to be pulled into the vicious circle of polarization will remain relevant across the gap and will not let the connection break down.

Claudia Kosser leads the Shanghai office and develops and executes integrated communications strategies for corporate positioning in China, cross-border M&A transactions, crisis mandates, or transformation and change projects. She has more than a decade of professional experience and opened Finsbury Glover Hering’s Shanghai office in 2019 after serving the company in Frankfurt and Hong Kong since 2011. She holds a Master in Communication Management from Leipzig University, and a Bachelor degree in European Studies from the University of Maastricht.

Mei Zhang is Managing Director at the Hong Kong office of Finsbury Glover Hering and has more than 25-years of professional experience in news media, public affairs, and international communications. During her career, she worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, as well as CNN in Atlanta. She was a founding board member of the NGO Teach for China. She holds an M.A. in Mass Communications from Louisiana State University and a B.A. in International Journalism from Beijing Institute of International Relations.
In Collaboration with Tom Miller

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