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Olympics and the desire for respect

By Marc Bermann
Marc Bermann, founder of MRB Consulting

As in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Games for the first time, the Chinese public will again be left disappointed by the external effects of the Games. After all, even then, the world press was more interested in China’s human rights violations and environmental sins than in the bright side of China’s economic miracle and the many gold medals won by Chinese athletes. The Middle Kingdom felt unfairly treated and many of its citizens were deeply offended. This year, there is a risk of an exacerbated repetition of mutual disappointment.

Let’s remember 2008: Just a quarter of a year before the Beijing Games, a devastating earthquake had caused widespread destruction in the west of the country and claimed many lives. The Summer Games offered the entire nation a chance to forget these traumatic events for a while and, as a proud host, to present the impressive results of its economic growth to the whole world.

The fact that the Games failed to bring China glory, fame, and more international respect was felt like a blow to the country’s image. This led to a rethinking of international communication in Beijing. In retrospect, the 2008 Olympic Games were a turning point in international relations with China.

Back then, most nations were battling the effects of the great economic and financial crisis that had erupted the year before – and which would spread and deepen even further around the world after the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008. China, as it turned out a short time later, was one of the few countries that came through this economic and financial crisis unscathed in comparison. This was mainly because China’s economy and its financial sector were better protected from international influences than those of other countries. The fact that the Chinese government was able to use the opportunities of the global crisis to its own advantage at the time – in stark contrast to the USA, for example – gave it new legitimacy for its claim to power in the eyes of the Communist Party. At the same time, national self-confidence surged.

The image strategy is considered a failure

At first, Beijing tried to underpin its new power by developing a soft power strategy that would also improve China’s image in the world. But the Chinese government’s advances did not achieve the desired result: Its desire for respect and recognition among the international community did not match the way it dealt with dissidents in its own country. It lacked credibility and the lifestyle it wished to export lacked the necessary appeal.

As valid as the reasons for the West’s lack of sympathy were: They amplified the sense of disappointment. This did not remain without consequences. From around 2009 onward, the Chinese government’s tone toward the outside world became harsher. Beijing was exhilarated by its new power and frustrated by a declining yet arrogant America and a weak Europe. At the same time, it was also frustrated by its continued poor reputation in the world. The international community was suddenly talking about China’s arrogant demeanor. The confident appearance of Chinese diplomats and other representatives of the nation was indeed new. It unsettled and baffled the West.

With Xi Jinping’s rise to the top of the party and state in 2012 and 2013, China has evolved from an authoritarian to a totalitarian system. Beijing detains millions of Uyghurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang and deprives Hong Kong people of rights and freedoms that were once firmly assured. Xi has snuffed out the civil society that developed in the mid-2000s with the spread of the Internet. Today, the highly equipped censorship apparatus can hardly be overcome or circumvented by anyone in China.

The negative opinion about China prevails

This spared a large part of the Chinese population the humiliation of negative foreign media reports. However, it is to be expected that the Chinese government will filter, process, and repurpose these reports for propaganda purposes to provide its people with evidence of the hostility of foreign powers. The narrative that the US and other democracies do not welcome China’s rise and want to keep it down will circulate through the Chinese press again in the coming weeks. It has become difficult for Chinese citizens to form their own opinion about the world. But that does not mean that the disappointment about the negative external image is solely controlled by the government – or could even be controlled.

China, whose economic, political, and military power has grown dramatically since 2008, leaves no doubt that it wants to exert more influence on global affairs in the future. One indicator of this is the New Silk Road Initiative. Beyond that, much remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that China’s popularity is declining rather than increasing. According to a 14-country survey of (Western) industrialized nations by the PEW Research Center, Beijing ranked at an all-time low with an average of 73 percent negative opinion of China in 2020.

On the one hand, Beijing constantly complains about China’s negative international image. On the other hand, the government does not seem to put much effort into improving its international image by changing its behavior, if only by adopting a new, more open, and conciliatory rhetoric – not only toward the outside world. Instead, it dispatches wolf-warrior diplomats to the front, promoting rather than mitigating the image of aggressive nationalism. After all, they want to be taken seriously.

No matter how you spin it, the global crises of our time can only be solved with China, not against it. But that requires facts, not fake news. It needs science. Science thrives only in freedom, and that requires liberal democracy. The majority of international journalists who will be covering the Winter Games know this. That is why they will certainly write about China’s problems and contradictions again. If the government and its people have a hard time coping, then that is the price we have to pay in the name of our values.

Marc Bermann is a Management Consultant in Muehlheim/Ruhr. Until 2020, he was a Program Manager at Mercator Foundation, where he played a key role in setting up the Merics research institute. At the Robert Bosch Foundation, he was in charge of the China area and, among other things, organized the German-Chinese media ambassador project. Bermann has a background in sinology and political science.

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