Susan Brownell on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is an expert on Chinese sports and Olympic Games, and is frequently interviewed on these topics by international media. She was a nationally-ranked track and field athlete (heptathlon) in the U.S. before she joined the track team at Peking University and was selected to represent Beijing in the 1986 Chinese National College Games, where she set a national record. Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People's Republic (1995) is the first book on Chinese sports based on fieldwork in China by a Westerner. She spent one year in Beijing in the lead up to China’s first Olympic Games in 2008, when she was the only non-Chinese member of a team of academic experts working with the Beijing municipal government on its "Olympic education" programs in schools and universities. She also conducted research at the Olympics in Athens, Rio, and PyeongChang. She is the author of Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China (2008), co-author of The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics (2018), and has published multiple other works and online commentaries about China and sports.
Jorlen Garcia CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Susan Brownell on February 10, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Susan Brownell.

Sports diplomacy, especially in the Olympics, can be a unique source of soft power for nations to showcase their national pride. How is China using the 2022 Olympics as an international arena to assert itself on the world stage? 

When China hosted the 2008 Olympic Games, the meaning of those games was very clear to everyone. The Chinese leadership saw it as a coming-out party for China, demonstrating that it had become an equal with the strong nations of the world, and the outside world accepted that meaning. These particular games have never had that clarity of purpose. Even when China was bidding in 2015, it probably didn't expect to get the games because normally a city has to bid twice before it wins a bid. Oslo (Norway) withdrew at the last minute, and they were originally the favorite. But there was a change of political parties, domestic politics got in the way, and Beijing unexpectedly won. So I'm not sure that even the leadership had a clear idea of the meaning or symbolism of these games. That said, they do affirm that China has arrived, and the rest of the world had better accept that. There really was a sincere effort to promote northeastern China as a winter sports destination. This had both a symbolic and an economic component. The economic component was that the winter sports industry had been identified as having quite a lot of potential for growth. If you build resorts in poor mountain areas, you can possibly stimulate economic development there. Snow sports, specifically, have a certain cachet in East Asia. So, Chinese leadership would like to demonstrate that China has become one of those prosperous nations that can support this luxury ski resort culture, which is patronized by global elites and celebrities.

What are the downsides of using the Olympics for political games?

China had really been through a rough time in 2008, so they should have known what was coming. Although the Winter Olympic Games are a much smaller event, and they're typically not very politically controversialso it is a bit of surprise that the controversy surrounding these games has been almost as big as that in 2008. They knew that a downside would be that it would attract this negative media coverage in the Western-dominated international media, politicians would use it as a platform to promote certain agendas, and nongovernmental organizations would use the media scrutiny as a platform to promote their causes. I have done research looking at major national image polls and what happened in those polls after the 2008 Olympics. The four that I looked at were Pew, Gallup, BBC and the Anholt Nation Brands Index, and some of them span quite a long period of time. I could look at 2008 and 10 years after, and in some cases, I could look at it up to 10 or 20 years prior as well. It appeared to me that those 2008 games caused a dip in the image of China worldwide. The questions vary from one poll to another, but essentially, it's like, "Do you think China is a good country making a positive contribution to the world or not? Do you have a favorable opinion of China?" It looked like those games actually caused a dip. I don't know if the Chinese authorities realize that; but if you're measuring success from these national image polls, then it's a risk that it could happen again. There is something different now, compared to then, which is that even then there was a split between the developing and the developed world. It was Japan and the developed West that had the most negative opinion of China, and the developing world had a more positive opinion because for the developing world, China is a model. China has done something they hope they can do. It looks like the split is becoming bigger because China now has a huge presence in Africa. And for many countries with a positive image of China, it is because China has stimulated economic development that the West's failed development programs could never achieve.

Today's China, like you mentioned, is not the same as 2008's China, as it has gone through political changes and rapid economic growth. So with these circumstances in mind, how do the 2022 Olympics compare with the 2008 Olympics? What specifically has changed?

I've been talking to a lot of journalists. The anchors have been saying, "It has been the most controversial Olympic games ever." Journalist’s memories are just really short, because 2008 was extremely controversial. And I think by some measures, more controversial than these games are. So it's interesting to look from that perspective at the protests from nations in 2008 compared to the “diplomatic boycott” now, because there actually was a boycott movement in 2008. That movement was called “boycott the Olympic ceremony,” with the idea that heads of state should not attend the opening ceremony. Interestingly, both the diplomatic boycott now and the boycott on the Olympic opening ceremony then were originally proposed by Nancy Pelosi, our Speaker of the House. She mentioned it, it picked up speed, and there were maybe as many as 13 Heads of State who didn't attend, most of whom did state that it was a form of protest against China's human rights abuses. At that time, the issue was Tibet, not the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So, in 2008, there were about 13 heads of state, most of whom did state it was a form of protest, and some of whom gave various excuses as we have seen today with the diplomatic boycott. What's interesting is that while the US President George Bush did attend, and the Prime Minister of Australia did attend, with those two exceptions, every other nation that is now supporting the diplomatic boycott also did not send a head of state to Beijing in 2008. And what's interesting is that there were more heads of state in 2008 who didn't attend, whereas those countries are not supporting a diplomatic boycott now. So if you look at the bigger picture, there are actually fewer nations willing to engage in protest at that level towards China, and in particular, key players in the European Union. So Spain, Italy, and Greece protested in 2008 but haven't joined the boycott in 2022. From that perspective, as big as the controversy seems now, it actually seems like China has more support politically from the developed world than it did in 2008. And also, many of those nations deliberately provoked China by inviting the Dalai Lama as a distinguished guest to their country, which always provokes a response from China. The US did that. Although George Bush attended the games, he also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to the Dalai Lama, while stating that he was going to attend the opening ceremony, so playing both sides of that game. Also, the Secretary General of the United Nations in 2008 was expected to attend and then suddenly at the last minute didn't, whereas this time around, Antonio Gutierrez did attend.

Have the political goals of China changed since President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012 as opposed to 2008? What are President Xi Jinping’s motivations for hosting the games under his presidency? And what does China gain from doing so?

In 2008, Xi Jinping had already been named the heir apparent of Hu Jintao, so it was expected that he would become the party chief and the president in 2013. He was made the head of what was called "the leading small group." A leading small group is a party group that will have ultimate authority over something, and he was the head of that. He actually had ultimate authority over the games. Having had that experience, he felt that overall the games were a positive thing for China. According to my inside sources in the IOC, perhaps the biggest supporter of the bid in 2015 for these games was Liu Qi, who had been the head of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 2008 Olympics and was also the party secretary of Beijing city. By 2015, when the bid was put forward, he was retired, and this was like a hobby. He had been through the same sort of political attacks that Xi Jinping and everybody else had seen, but he was pushing the bid for the Winter Games. So they must have thought there were positive things that they got out of it. I was told by a staff member at the US embassy that 400,000 local government officials were expected to attend the Beijing Games, and they would all probably be VIP guests of various people in Beijing. So that shows the level at which the games might have completely interconnected with domestic politics. 

The United States has declared a diplomatic boycott over the Olympics, citing human rights concerns and violations in China. They've been joined by the UK, Australia, Canada, and several other countries. Why didn't they opt for a full boycott? 

When we hear Olympic boycott, the most famous boycotts that we think of are the 1980 and 1984 tit-for-tat boycotts between the United States and the Soviet Union. Full disclosure here, I competed in the 1980 Olympic Trials in track and field in the heptathlon. We knew before the Trials started that we were not going to Moscow, and I was at that point an Olympic hopeful. I didn't end up making the team, but like so many athletes, I personally went through that experience of having your government crush your dreams. That generation of athletes became cynical, maybe for the first time, about the use of the Olympics as a political tool. The generation of athletes then grew up and became leaders in the world of international sport, and one of them was Thomas Bach, who is now the president of the International Olympic Committee. He lost the chance to defend his gold medal in team fencing in 1976 because West Germany supported the boycott. So there was a lot of negative opinion in the sports world towards that boycott, and some athletes fought it by making their opinion known. In addition, Juan Antonio Samaranch became President of the International Olympic Committee, and he went around the world telling heads of states that boycotts are politically ineffective, and they only harm the athletes. Those two boycotts, in particular the US boycott, which was to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, were completely and totally ineffective. The Soviets didn't leave for another nine years, and 20 years later, the US invaded Afghanistan and stayed there twice as long as the Soviets had. It just made that whole boycott look ridiculous and completely ineffective. So heading out of the Cold War, nobody was in support of that kind of boycott where you keep the athletes home. And now, there has been no national boycott since the Cold War, by which I mean, countries keeping their athletes home. So that was really off the table. There's a general consensus out there that you just shouldn't do that. What the Biden administration came up with was a strategy that you could call a boycott but wasn't really that kind of boycott, and “diplomatic boycott” seems to be a new phrase. I don't think it was used in 2008, and I'm not sure it has been used in the context of the Olympic Games. It was a political strategy to come up with a way of using the word "boycott," because that does draw headlines, and to express protest without keeping the athletes home, which would have produced a strong backlash against the Biden administration if they had proposed it. And interestingly, the IOC is now confident enough in its own authority that it has written into its rules that it can punish nations that boycott the Olympics. North Korea didn't send a team to Tokyo, stating that it was because of COVID, but the IOC banned North Korea from participating in Beijing in 2022. So, if the US had tried to do that, maybe the IOC would have said you can't participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics or maybe not even in your own Olympics in 2028.

Do these boycotts have any effect on the Chinese government's domestic policy?

We had this “boycott the opening ceremony” movement in 2008 that nobody even remembers. I don't think we have any evidence that China changed its internal policies on the hot button issues. Most China scholars think this diplomatic boycott will produce no changes in domestic policies. Now, there was actually a big change after 2008, and that was that China decided to invest in its foreign communications capacity, because it felt that it was unable to get a counter message out there into the Western dominated international media. It has been a huge effort that produced a much bigger infrastructure for reaching global audiences. This is a way of extending their soft power to talk directly to the citizens of the world through TV, newspapers, radio, and other cultural products. This was really a big policy response to the 2008 Olympic Games.

Do you think this diplomatic boycott affects relations between the West and China? 

If you look at the nations that have publicly declared the diplomatic boycott, except for the US and Australia, it's the same nations that didn't send heads of state in 2008. So we're actually talking about a long-term general pattern in international relationships between these particular countries. The diplomatic boycott will be seen by China as one more example of the tensions and relations with these particular countries. I think there was a spokesperson who did threaten retribution. I don't think there was any direct retribution in 2008. It's probably because these are relationships in which there are already tensions and ongoing negotiations.

Companies have faced backlash and boycotts on them over their sponsorship of the games from both human rights activists, who are concerned with their support toward the games, and patriotic Chinese consumers, who feel that this expression of concern over China by the companies is an attack on their nation. How are companies balancing these two opposing forces between a reputational hit on human rights or a loss of profit from the Chinese market? 

In the bigger picture, what's happening in the area of corporations is a new and significant development that has been ramping up slowly. So nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups probably started to realize that simply pressuring governments to change wasn't producing any real results, although it got a lot of publicity. They started branching out a bit and putting more pressure on athletes to protest. That is another kind of stakeholder group that is under increasing pressure to take a stance. Then, they increasingly targeted corporations, and the International Olympic Committee was partly on board with them, because in the end, it's a nongovernmental organization too. They're all part of this transnational civil society. And so, the International Olympic Committee has started pressuring the corporate sponsors and suppliers. The high-profile ones, the top sponsors, are about a dozen corporations who are the global sponsors and pay fees to the International Olympic Committee. They are under increasing pressure to have fair labor practices throughout their entire supply chain, all the way down to factories making clothing in other countries. This is a really interesting development because the host city is now required to set up a grievance mechanism where grievances about unfair labor practices anywhere in the supply chain are heard. Corporations typically can get off the hook by saying, "Well, this is just a subcontractor in Pakistan. It's an independent business in a different country." That doesn't matter with this system. Nike, or whoever, is now responsible for ensuring fair labor practices throughout their entire supply chain. And if they don't, there can be penalties. The IOC has leverage over them because they've signed contracts with the IOC. And so, corporations are coming under not only a tremendous amount of public pressure from the NGOs, but also actual legal pressure. It's going to be a new world for them. They will have to figure out how to negotiate it and whether the potential damage to their business and the reputation is worth it. Because if any one of them gets called out by the International Olympic Committee for its practices, that would do huge reputational damage to the company. This is an evolving situation, and we don't quite know how it's all going to play out. 

What does continued company sponsorship of the games demonstrate about the power of the Chinese consumer class?

There's backlash happening in both places, one against American corporations who are sponsoring the Olympic games and the other is Chinese nationalism raising its ugly head in China. Take the example of the freeski athlete, Eileen Gu, who was an American citizen representing China and who just won two gold medals. She has many sponsors, both based in the US and China, including luxury brands like Tiffany, which I don't think have ever sponsored any winter Olympic athlete. These sponsors must have calculated the risk and decided it was worth it. First of all, there could be a backlash in the West against them sponsoring a Chinese athlete like her. Or there could be a backlash in China against the fact that in the end, she's an American. The sponsors must have thought, "No, it's not going to actually happen," or else they thought the China market was so important that it was still worth it. I think that's a change in thinking. The willingness to toss aside these national boundaries is getting stronger because we're living in an ever more interconnected global world. They want to get into the China market because it has so much potential that they're willing to take a little bit of risk for it. They don't think that these national disputes and ugly nationalism in different countries are really going to be that big of a problem.

What does it mean that the pressure is shifting on athletes to protest rather than countries?

There are countries like the Netherlands where some of these organizations, like Amnesty International, are really strong. They will actually ask if they can give talks to the National Olympic team, so they approach the athletes directly, and they try to pressure them to take a stance. Chinese American athletes in the US have been under a little pressure in that way, probably coming from media who just insist on asking about it. And then, the activist-athlete has emerged as a brand that an athlete could take on, which has a level of social acceptance now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that it didn't have before. We did have some low-level protests from those athletes in Tokyo. There's this feeling that athletes should be able to speak out, because they were tightly muzzled in the context of the Olympic games before, but the rules have been loosened up a little bit. Athletes' rights are getting more attention. They are becoming a powerful constituency because there's a lot more money there, at least in some sports. They also stay in longer, so they're older and more mature and they start to want to use their celebrity status to take a stance on certain issues. This is what has been happening among athletes, although not nearly on as large a scale as the media or the NGOs would like you to believe, because in the end, most athletes don't want to be political activists.

The International Olympic Committee has come under severe criticism for not pressuring China or speaking out against human rights abuses in China. Are such criticisms fair for the International Olympic Committee to get involved in? Or are there realistic options for them when China seems to have done well in preparing the games logistically?

After 2008, the International Olympic Committee engaged in a lot of self-reflection on this topic and about how to better handle these kinds of attacks. New policies slowly emerged, particularly when the current President Thomas Bach took office in 2013. He was a very different character from the previous president. He really pushed forward some significant reforms. The IOC has actually taken measures to respond to the situation. I already mentioned the new approach to fair labor. What they're doing is they're following the social responsibility model that already existed in corporations. They put a mild statement about human rights into the host city contract, which Beijing signed, but those contracts are signed seven years ahead of time. The really big developments took place in 2017, but they aren't included in the contract for Beijing. Going forward, there's actually an entire human rights clause in the host city contract starting with Paris, and it requires the organizing committee to follow the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. And so, the IOC has actually changed a lot. It has actually thought a lot about how it should respond to this, and it has pursued this option that the corporate model is best. The reasoning goes like this: the only thing we actually control is the organizing work involved in producing the games, so we cannot be held responsible for the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but we can be held responsible for mass evictions at the site where Olympic construction is taking place. This new human rights clause focuses on those things that typically happen directly in connection with the games. That is how they're going to defend themselves in the future. They will be saying, "Look, we have a human rights clause, and it addresses the things over which we have control. You cannot expect us to try to stop these mass assimilation efforts that are being carried out with Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It's not our job." So they've withdrawn from the broad philosophical stance that sport has the power to create a better society in all ways.

Jorlen Garcia CMC '24Student Journalist

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