Beijing’s Panjiayuan flea market sometimes hides remarkable finds among secondhand books. A few years ago, I acquired an exclusive anniversary coffee-table book from 1990, published to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC chief, born in 1920, was used to being courted everywhere – thanks to his influence on the awarding of the Games – and to receiving lavish gifts. Beijing scored points with him with a morning gift. Its cover read in English, “A true friend of China,” and in Chinese calligraphy brushed, “Samaranch and China.” (薩馬兰奇與中國)
The calligraphy came from Deng Xiaoping. He had written it in traditional, not simplified characters. The vain Spaniard was deeply moved. The Emperor of China had personally paid his birthday greetings to the King of the IOC.
Such small gestures belong to the highest school of Chinese lobbying. In many parlors of prominent German travelers to China, characters written by high officials hang on the walls on silk scrolls. The phenomenon is irreversible. I have not yet heard of any Chinese who would hang up a handwritten motto or name of a foreigner at home.
Beijing has long had more to offer than just characters. The official recognition of being an “old friend” has paid off for dozens of high-ranking former top politicians, from Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair to Gerhard Schröder. With consulting firms, as lecture travelers or door openers, they profit from booming business in China. At the same time, China has learned, alongside such advocates, to exert much more direct influence worldwide. Like Moscow, it is also interfering in US affairs. Former New York Times correspondent David Barboza titled his recent research on the subject: “The New Influencers“.
With Samaranch, who served as IOC chief from 1980 to 2001, Beijing pulled out all the stops, awarded him medals, built him a museum. He had not only engineered China’s return to the IOC in 1984 after 32 years of playing only a fence-sitting role. Samaranch also helped Beijing’s sprint to bid for the Summer Olympics: During the bidding for the 2000 Games, Beijing’s mayor, Chen Xitong, welcomed Samaranch with the words, “You are our god.” As a footnote to history, it should be noted that Chen was later sentenced to 16 years in prison, but not for trying to corrupt Samaranch, but for allegedly taking bribes himself.
Beijing was the favorite when the IOC decided in September 1993 whether to award the Games for 2000. But it failed. Samaranch read out the narrow final result: Sydney won by 45 votes to 43. China had brought the defeat on itself, Shanghai’s political biographer Ye Yonglie told me. He learned from his research in North Korea that the decisive no-vote came from Pyongyang. North Korea’s leaders were furious because the People’s Republic had established diplomatic relations with South Korea in August 1992. China’s censors deleted Ye’s explosive revelation from his book, “The Real North Korea”, published in Shanghai in March 2008.
After the setback in 1993, China managed to win the Summer Games for 2008 at the second attempt in 2001. Years later, Beijing achieved another coup. It also became the first capital in the world to host the 2022 Winter Games. The IOC didn’t mind that Beijing had no skiing or ice-skating traditions other than skating. Nor did it take offense at the fact that the city only won because all its rivals except Kazakhstan’s Almaty had withdrawn their bids.
State leader Xi Jinping promised IOC chief Thomas Bach, walking in Samaranch’s footsteps, Winter Games “that are as clean and pure (corruption-wise) as ice and snow”. That came across as unintentionally funny because Beijing and northern China are so dry in winter that all snow must be artificially produced. Most importantly, Xi ensnared the IOC chief with his promise to turn nearly 30 million Chinese fans of winter sports into an army of some 300 million ice and snow enthusiasts by 2022 and the People’s Republic into the world’s largest winter sports market.
Many foreigners are easily susceptible to China’s influence because they project idealized notions onto the People’s Republic. This repeatedly leads to misunderstandings that could fill books. One is still prevalent today, revealed by former chief interpreter Charles W. Freeman, who traveled to China with US President Richard Nixon in 1972. In a conversation about world political events, then-Premier Zhou Enlai replied to the question of how he assessed the French Revolution with a phrase that has become famous: “It is still too early to be able to judge its consequences.” To this day, many contemporaries regard his saying as an expression of how wisely and over long periods of time the millennia-old cultural people of China think before passing judgment.
Translator Freeman revealed in 2011 what Zhou Enlai really meant. He was not talking about the French Revolution of 1789 in February 1972, but the one in May 1968, when students took to the barricades in Paris. Freeman wrote that he could not have corrected the misunderstanding in 1972. “It was just what people wanted to hear and believe.”