Skip to main content
Op-Ed

The Beijing Olympics and China’s Soft Power

In world politics, soft power refers to an international player’s non-coercive influence on others, its attractiveness in the world, and the power of its model and morality. I largely agree with Professor Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power: “the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want.”[1] For China, soft power is a new field of international cooperation and competition. Currently, China is building or rebuilding its soft power. In other words, as the country is rising economically and strategically in the world, an exclusive reliance on hard power is seen as inappropriate and insufficient in pursuing China’s goals. Officially and unofficially, the development of the nation’s soft power has been regarded as a pressing task and is near the top of China’s list of priorities.

Chinese strategic thinking has long included ideas similar or equivalent to the concept of soft power, but in previous decades, the soft dimension of the Chinese power was seriously neglected, sidelined by a concentration on “economic construction,” the slow process of the political reform, and a “low key” diplomatic strategy. More recently, China has adopted the modern concept from the United States, and it has become a source of inspiration in China’s progress toward becoming a real global power.

Although it was a latecomer to the international community, China has become a new engine for globalization. Today, many Chinese think that a “Chinese element” (中国元素) is increasingly being added to the process due to China’s full engagement. Some even argue that China is so central to globalization that the world is being “sinicized” (中国化) as well as globalized. By definition, globalization should be more comprehensive than “Americanization” or “Westernization,” and the addition of a “Chinese element” is very appropriate. The Beijing Olympics have made the country more global, and thus have increased the “Chinese element” in the world.

China’s soft power can be developed through various comparative advantages, such as its rich civilization and cultural heritage, its valuable experiences of “reform, development and opening up” over the last three decades, and its newly obtained status as an athletic powerhouse. But clearly and undeniably, the process of applying for, preparing, and hosting the 2008 summer Olympics in the Chinese capital has been a milestone in China’s exploration of soft power.

This is not to say that China has completed building the base that it needs to be a major soft power. Indeed, China is very big country which has been undergoing great economic and social transformations, with enormous challenges and contradictions, for 30 years. Any single world event such as the Olympics cannot easily change China’s reality and image overnight. But, China’s people and society have had an unprecedented interaction – exceeding all expectations – with the world through the games. Hopefully, this may mark a new starting point and push China’s progress and transformation forward.

This piece addresses briefly the implications of the Beijing Olympics for China’s soft power and its relations with the U.S.

China was extremely excited, honored, and satisfied to host such a world event because it desires to be acknowledged as an indispensable member of the international community. The Chinese elites proclaimed the Beijing games a “century old dream” (百年梦想) of the Chinese people, which mainly meant that the Chinese people want their achievements and progress to be universally recognized. In this era of global interdependence, however, a world event such as the Olympics is not only a soft power opportunity for the host country, but also for other countries. The festivities in Beijing were indeed a win-win situation for the Olympic family. China simply served as the local organizer of the games, and all nations competed on a level playing field according to long-established international rules.

The games were a true manifestation of the global win-win spirit of the Olympics. The world-class facilities in Beijing and elsewhere in China, including the “Bird’s Nest” where the opening ceremony and other events were conducted, mainly used design technologies from Western companies. Many top multinational companies based in the OECD countries have benefited greatly from their sponsorships of the Beijing Games. More dramatically, the Chinese Olympic delegation included at least 28 head coaches from foreign countries. This global spirit is also present in other aspects of modern Chinese society. Many Chinese coaches and athletes like Yao Ming now are fully employed with the foreign teams outside the Olympics. Beijing and other metropolitan areas in China are now the largest profitable emerging market for international arts, cultures, sports, and other soft commodities. And of course, by using the Olympic opportunity, thousands of foreign companies have consolidated their presences in the Chinese market.

Author

As noted above, the Beijing games were a big showcase not only for the China’s sporting soft power, but others’ smart soft power, particularly America’s. Many young Chinese students, who are often criticized by the leading foreign media for their nationalism – or praised by the domestic media for their patriotism – were deeply attracted to American star athletes such as the perfect Michael Phelps. Chinese students from elementary schools to universities showed their interest and respect to American competitors and their many successful performances.

I propose to study the issue of what I call the “soft power trade” between China and other countries (for example, the United States). Unlike China’s trade of goods and services, I cautiously and carefully estimate that in trade of soft power, including the sports trade, China has a huge deficit rather than a surplus. China still failed to export any meaningful Olympics-related cultural products in the seven years since the games were awarded to Beijing. Instead, the nation imported many cultural and sport products from the world. This is perhaps a most important and timely way to measure China’s soft power balance sheet.

During the 2008 Olympics, both at home and abroad, many critics targeted China’s gold medal producing “state sport system.” They accused China of sponsoring state-run sports schools and a centralized sports administration without careful consideration of the costs. The state sports model was originally borrowed from the former East Germany and is a continuation of China’s old central planning system. But, in the end, other countries such as Australia, Japan and even today’s Germany have in fact partially introduced this Chinese sports experience.[2] (This is in fact one example of an Olympic-related soft-power export.) Interestingly, while others tried to learn or copy, in varying degrees, the Chinese sports system, actually, China has not ignored the criticism of its sport regime fully supported financially and politically by the entire country (举国体制). In recent years, even before the Beijing Olympics, many people began to call for serious reform so that China would become not just a “gold medal power” (金牌大国) but a comprehensive “sports power” (体育大国), including participation by ordinary people as well as elite athletes. In short, international sports competition has already created a mutual learning process between China and the world.

The Beijing Olympics were also important for China’s relations with the developing world. China invited many leaders and dignitaries from the developing world to attend either the opening ceremony or the closing ceremony of the games. As the first developing country to successfully organize the Olympics, China may have gained a lasting international reputation and credibility, especially in Asia and the rest of the developing world. Its ability to organize and manage the largest and most complex global event has been proven. Even its capacity for crisis management has been acknowledged globally, even though some may not like it. Some Western political leaders calculated the political costs and benefits attending the games, but their counterparts from the developing world largely did not hesitate to accept China’s cordial invitations, and many felt very honored and expressed their sincere congratulations for China’s success. Some from Africa said they had witnessed the birth of a new superpower. Some from Asia even repeatedly said China’s role in the games reflected not only an increase in China’s soft power, but also the enhancement of the soft power of Asia as a whole. India unofficially has expressed its hope to obtain assistance from China to prepare for its forthcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. China’s Olympic glory – together with the success of other Asian sports powers – indicates the rise of Asia or the East in the world. In the post-Beijing Olympics world, I believe, China’s partnership with Asia and the developing world will be continuously boosted.

In the aftermath of the Beijing games, China’s relations with the U.S. are facing a new opportunity and challenge. President Bush made a highly publicized visit to the games and attended many events. And although China won the most gold medals, Premier Wen Jiabao sincerely and modestly congratulated U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on America’s winning highest overall number of Olympic medals. This profound and meaningful interaction between two leaders contains rich implications for the future bilateral relationship. First, China continues to be aware of and respect America’s dominant position in world affairs. In other words, China still perceives that its relations with the U.S. are extremely important for the nation’s bright future, and it is ready to steadily move the relationship forward. Second, China continues to firmly seek cooperation with the U.S. The two great countries have enjoyed cooperative and constructive relations in the past three decades. In the future, the only best option for the two peoples is to continue this situation. But, because of China’s “show of power”[3] through the games, I worry that some in the U.S. may use the Beijing Olympics as powerful evidence to revive the old political perception of a “China threat” or “China challenge.”



[1] Quote by Joseph Nye at an event of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on April 13, 2004. Transcript available at http://www.cceia.org/resources/transcripts/4466.html; accessed September 1, 2008.

[2] Ian Johnson, “The new gold war: Germany revives its communist-era athletes schools as the global race for Olympic glory heats up,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2008, page A1.

[3] See, for example, Amy Shipley, “China’s show of power,” Washington Post, August 25, 2008; Anne Applebaum, “‘Show of power’, indeed,’” Washington Post, August 26, 2009.

Get daily updates from Brookings