In August 2008, China hosted the Olympic Games, officially the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing. According to one of the fundamental principles of olympism, “every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
Organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the modern Olympics also serve as an international platform for countries, governments and leaders to conduct their public diplomacy - promote their culture, politics and economic development to billions of global audience. The Beijing Olympics, also referred to as People’s Olympics were both a sports event and a cultural gala.
Cultural performance during the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony
Before 1990s, China perceived public diplomacy as a task solely restricted to the government in how it communicated with foreign publics and what it deemed right including through propaganda to inform its domestic audience. In Chinese language, propaganda has no negative connotation and is widely interchangeable with public diplomacy.
In the then Chinese version of public diplomacy, there was no space for ‘engagement and dialogue’, something Kerr Pauline and Geoffery Wiseman (Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, 2013) strongly emphasizes as what every government needs to focus today.
However, the ‘rising’ China’s approach to public diplomacy has changed after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Despite all the controversies and setbacks, China did its utmost to portray its picture differently. While addressing over 91,000 guests that included some 100 heads of state, government and delegations, Chinese President Hu Jintao made no mention of any of the speculated controversies, but hailed the occasion as a proud moment for every Chinese and hoped that his country be better recognized, trusted and mutually respected.
Just like all other countries, China, too, is increasingly relying on soft power means to conduct its public diplomacy through promoting understanding, increasing its influence and winning support for its national interests. Once a regional empire that fought several wars for its superiority through guns and bullets, China today invests in peaceful means to revive its historic regional dominance.
This study argues that despite controversies and setbacks, China successfully used the Beijing Olympics as a tool of public diplomacy with a positive impact on its politics, economics and environment. The Games demonstrated how well the Chinese people and government worked for years to fulfil a national aspiration and achieve an outcome that no conflict or coercion can.
OLYMPICS AND CHINA’S PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
Public diplomacy is understood according to Jozef Batora’s definition as the development and maintenance of a country’s soft power of persuasion and attraction. Similarly, "Soft power" according to Joseph Nye is the “influence and attractiveness a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture” and what enables a nation "to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion. Each of the two definitions effectively demonstrates how the performance of a State in today’s international affairs can lead to the promotion of its soft power through culture, education and media.
For China, the Olympic Games was an effective tool to achieve this goal. It successfully displayed its rich culture and traditions to the world through performances and entertainment, art, music, food and dress to enhance public image and mutual understanding with the world.
Cultural Performance during 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony
China tried to use Beijing 2008 as an opportune platform to dispel the impression as if China remains a closed society with a totalitarian regime that does not want interaction with the world. In line with how Diplomacy in a Globalizing World explains that “Chinese traditional culture and not a communist ideology has become the main source of the ideas and policies of China’s contemporary diplomacy” with the focus of moving towards a harmonious world , China even chose its official moto of the games as "One World, One Dream".
The Games was a big show of China’s political, economic and cultural performance to both the region and the world. Among others, it did a huge favor to China’s new public diplomacy approach. The Games were accompanied by a series of spectacular art and cultural events. Among them were the Torch Relay with the theme of “Light of the Asian Games”, the Asian Art Festival, the Asian Games Science Conference and more than 40 exhibitions and celebrations of Chinese traditions and customs - all very well-thought themes to help promote China and its culture and traditions as the richest of Asia.
Beijing National Stadium Known as Bird's Nest Designed for 2008 Beijing Olympics
However, it took China so much financial and political efforts to get to this. Financially, the games cost China about $ 40 billion - making it the second most expensive Olympics in history.
Politically, many protests were held around the world to question the eligibility of China to host an international event as a country protestors accused of human rights violations. There were also many local protests and demonstrations during the games against Chinese government.
Building an international image, more importantly a favorable image, doesn’t come so easy. It is every country’s ultimate goal of being seen as favored and admired particularly when it comes to both soft and hard power. Diplomacy through sport such as the Olympics is a relatively new approach that according to the Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, governments are increasingly using to promote their national identity or nation branding – culture, history, economic might and development. Sport diplomacy is one of the impactful tools used by countries to effectively pursue soft power. Countries with a less recognized global image and those seeking to rise globally use sport diplomacy to promote their nations image. Russia, for example, did so much both financially and politically to host the Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi. The State of Qatar, a small but a tremendously wealthy nation in the Middle East too is in line for the World Cup 2022. Despite its unfavorable climate (being too hot), Qatar worked extensively until it convinced the FIFA World Cup organizers that it will provide all required suitable facilities including a huge temperature controlled stadium designed specifically for the World Cup.
Cultural display during the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China
The Beijing Olympics too was China’s display of its unmatched capabilities to promote itself as a growing regional as well as global economic and political power. All of the activities within the Olympics were structured in a way to serve China’s goal of a soft power and public diplomacy through culture. Even the Opening Ceremony of the Games, “Gathering in Beijing”, not only reflected the artistic creativity and organizational capacity of the Chinese people but also put into display an attractive Chinese culture.
The People’s Olympics that continued for 16 days ended with significant celebrations and appreciations both at home and abroad. The Games were the most watched Olympics in history, attracting 4.7 billion viewers worldwide.
Although no single world event including the Olympics can easily change a country’s image overnight, China’s people and society used this as a historic and unprecedented interaction with the world. With a globally positive impact in favor of China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics served as an effective Chinese soft power that considerably changed Chinese perception abroad just as Professor Joseph Nye defines soft power as “the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want.”
Despite all the setbacks including the Tibetan protests and accusations of human rights abuses by China, this definition by Joseph Nye turned out just right once the Games were concluded. The guests and invitees were so impressed that some described China’s preparations as extraordinary. The IOC President called it as “truly exceptional” and in the words of the Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, it was “the world’s most memorable Olympics”. President George Bush called it “spectacular and successful”.
So, in view of the Chinese efforts and the extent of the preparations it had made for this historical opportunity, China considerably improved its foreign perception of a closed unwelcoming society to an emerging power with a rich history capable of serving as an international platform – the core of any diplomacy effort. Such impressions were reflected around the world. Australia’s popular paper, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, "The world may never witness a ceremony of the magnitude and ingenuity…" London's widely read Evening Standard ran the headline: "China Magic," and said the "most ambitious Olympics in history opens with most spectacular show. For China, it is the start of something even bigger than an Olympic Games. It is, or at least is meant to be, the beginning of China's new era of greatness, witnessed and implicitly approved, by much of the leadership of the planet," wrote Andrew Gilligan from Beijing. "Marvelous. Too Marvelous," wrote Italy's Rome-based daily La Repubblica. Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the ceremony celebrated "not the economic giant growing to threatening size but a nation with an ancient culture, fascinating sounds and traditional pictures.