Winter Olympics 2022: Soft Power in the Contemporary International System

Written by: Ken Wang 

The Olympics, whether held in summer or winter, have always been a symbol of athleticism, friendly competition, a time for peace, a chance to improve diplomatic relationships, and an opportunity to promote the image of the host country. China recently hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics, and it was a great success for China to promote its image and gain an incredible amount of soft power. 

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing was particularly important because it was the first time China reopened its borders to the international community. It has been almost two years since the pandemic first started. As variants appeared, China issued zero-COVID policies and tightened COVID restrictions for international travelers such as Olympic athletes. The fact that China succeeded in controlling the pandemic while hosting a grand international event proves the effectiveness of the zero-COVID policy, which could be a lesson for the rest of the world. 

At the early stage of the pandemic, most perceptions about China’s handling of the coronavirus were negative. One contributing factor is that China is not a democratic country, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never been popular among western countries because of that fact. Another reason is that many people see China as a threat, especially Americans, due to China’s growing economic power and increasing political influence through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

With the Winter Olympics, the world had its eyes on China. Reporters and athletes actively shared their experiences in China on social media to show that China is not what many Americans make it to be. For the first time in a while, the world got to see the recovery China has made from the pandemic and its effort to continue the route of recovery by keeping the pandemic under control. 

China was the first country to be hit by the pandemic. Many cities, including Wuhan, went into lockdown overnight. Due to the continuing appearances of new waves, China had to toughen its domestic COVID policies. As of now, both of my parents, who live in China, continue to get tested weekly and work from home when necessary.   

Despite the challenges, China still successfully hosted more than 2,800 athletes for almost three weeks. This experience tells us two things: China’s COVID policies are effective, and China is not as negative as people make it to be. 

Although athletes’ experiences vary, most enjoyed their stay in the Olympic Village. The positive comments stem from the new technologies athletes experienced, like the zero-gravity beds they rested on or how much freedom they had in the village, despite the pandemic situation in China. However, some found their stay not so pleasant.

One Norwegian skier, Aleksander Asmodt Kilde, shared that he had to be careful with all the COVID restrictions, and the separation from his girlfriend there was challenging. Athletes from South Korea complained about the food in the village, despite most athletes enjoying the meals at the village. 

Through insights and positive comments, the world saw a different side of China via the eyes of ordinary people. More importantly, it gave China a lot of soft power in the contemporary international system. 

In this context, soft power refers to non-military or non-physical forces. Soft power is usually composed of economic power and cultural influence. It helps states keep healthy diplomatic relations during peaceful times. 

What does it mean for China to gain soft power at this moment? As mentioned before, China has received many negative reviews from the west, primarily Americans. Additionally, China has faced backlash and denunciation from the international community for its policies regarding the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region. 

In early December of 2021, the Biden Administration announced that the United States would diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic, meaning the United States would not send senior officials to Beijing to watch the game. The decision was due to the controversy over human rights issues in the Xinjiang region. 

However, boycotting due to controversies over human rights is not the real reason. The boycott is because most Americans see China as a fierce competitor or an enemy – the majority of Democrats for the former and Republicans for the latter. As a result, the true purpose of the boycott was not to give China more attention but rather to keep the focus on the U.S. agendas. 

Plus, boycotting has really never worked well because of the International Olympic Committee’s principle of depoliticizing sports. The two biggest boycotts occurred in 1980 and 2014. In 1980, more than 60 countries led by the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics due to the Russian invasion in Afghanistan. In 2014, President Obama and Vice President Biden skipped the Sochi Winter Olympics. 

The 1980 boycott crippled many events as well as many athletes’ dreams of competing at the highest level; the 2014 boycott did not stop Putin from annexing Crimea. None of these results turned out to be positive. Additionally, Russia boycotted the 1984 Olympic games in retaliation. Therefore, boycotting international sporting events is ineffective and potentially inflicts damage on diplomatic relations like it did in the 1980s.

If boycotting had no precedent of success, the United States should not have expected any success this time. On the contrary, the event proved that China successfully resisted the pressure from different challenges both internationally and domestically. 

By successfully hosting the Winter Olympics, the international community had the chance to focus on the positive aspects of Chinese society: well-organized events, welcoming volunteers, new stadiums, accommodating services, etc. That is the first sign of the increased soft power of China. 

Increased soft power for China would translate to more sway and potentially improved diplomatic relationships with certain countries. Ironically, one of those countries was the United States through Ping Pong Diplomacy. In April 1971, when a small, friendly exchange happened between two ping pong players, Zhuan Zedong and Glenn Cowan, it led to the U.S. lifting the trade embargoes on China, and eventually, former President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, opening new doors for U.S.-China relations. 

For China, this is an opportunity to push for its agendas, such as the continuing economic partnerships with various countries and more opportunities for the Belt and Road Initiative. For now, this should be enough to continue its battle for world dominance in the foreseeable future.