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Sports, the new Ping-Pong table? Nationalism, the 12th man?

 12 min read / 

Since the establishment of the People Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, sport has become an integral part of Chinese nationalism, which is also the backbone of China’s foreign policy in modern times. Sport is not only the battlefield between two teams within game time, but also the arena for today’s international politics, for instance, the infamous Ping-Pong diplomacy. As the football analogy, ‘the 12th man’ suggests, it could be argued that China’s sporting success is attributed to the Chinese nationalism and the desire to discard the label of ‘the sick man of East Asia’. Through analysing the political significance of China’s involvement in Olympic Games and international football competitions, this article would argue that sport plays an integral role in Chinese nationalism, based on national unity, soft power and political considerations. To arrive at this conclusion, the article would first examine nationalism as the key driving force in China’s sports development, both as a contestant and a host city; second, discuss the impact of sports nationalism in China’s geopolitics over the Asia- Pacific region.

Theoretically, nationalism is defined as individual’s loyalty and devotion to the specific nation state. Hobsbwam (1992) argued that sport could be contextualised as a national struggle between nations, where national identities are continually shaped and reshaped by states, athletes and supporters. Through participating in international sports competitions, nations states can promote their self-images, enhance international reputations and boost the morale of their people (Leiper, 1988). Athletes’ performance hence signifies state power in a level playing field (e.g. the Olympic Games). National team’s success hence strengthens national prestige and dignity. Therefore, people are highly emotional in supporting their national teams, since sports competition is more than just a game between the two teams, but a matter of one’s national pride.

Chinese nationalism has been expressed and observed in international sports competitions since the 1980s. With Deng Xiaoping’s discourse ‘Improve the Level of Performance, Win Honour for the Country’ (Lu and Hong, 2013); the Chinese government and its people believe that athletes’ excellent performance in Olympic Games could highlight the nation’s achievement alongside its economic reform and state modernization. From then, more resource has been invested in China’s sports development, since sporting success was seen as an effective way to demonstrate China’s power on a global level. In light of the closer relationship between sport and nationalism, China’s Sports Ministry established the ‘Olympic Strategy’ with an aim to develop elite sport and transform China into a leading sports power (Fan and Lu, 2012). The elite sports system is indeed a top-down, tightly structured nationwide policy, which the top-level controls and manages everything to achieve Olympics medals. Local and regional sports commissions are all responsible for talented youth selection and professional training. Under the elite sports system, despite the physical and psychological strain exerted, athletes are obligated to devote all their energy to earning glory for the country, which is arguably similar to the Soviet-style training system. The ‘Olympic Strategy’ and elite sports system could not have succeeded without the Chinese nationalist spirit from the state, athletes and supporters in all aspects.

To evaluate, Chinese gold-medal fever has put its national glory above athletes’ individual interest. Unlike the United States, which the competitive college sports system is the cradle for the national team, the Chinese Olympics sports training system draws a clear distinction between education and sports development. Talents are selected and sent to state-funded training camps at a very young age. Since then, athletes receive no further school education, but to train intensively every day. Fuelled by the nationalistic sentiment to glorify the country, a gold medal is deemed to be the only acceptable standard of achievement for athletes. Chinese weightlifter, We Jingbao, sobbed uncontrollably and apologised for shaming the motherland after winning a silver medal. The same was captured at a diving event in the London Olympics. Undoubtedly, nationalism has shaped China’s sporting success to a large extent. Yet, should equal amount respect be given to athletes who make an effort for the nation regardless of the results? A medal is meant to be a tremendous honour for the athlete and the nation, whatever the colour it is (Fromer and Zuo, 2014). Moreover, given the nature of the elite sports training system which education stops once young athlete joins the state-funded training camp, it is estimated that 80 percent of China’s retired athletes suffer from unemployment and poverty due to the lack of education and coaching opportunities (as being taken up mostly by foreign coaches in the national team). Against the backdrop of China’s sporting achievements, there is a need for a possible reform of the elite sports training system to provide better marketable skills for retired athletes, for instance, adopt the U.S. N.C.A.A. (National Collegiate Athletic Association) system, which competitive sports training can happen alongside normal tertiary education. Nevertheless, driven by the nationalistic craze of gold medals in Chinese sports development, national glory is more likely to prevail over athletes’ long-term interest.

Primarily, sport can be regarded as the continuation of politics by other means, from both a contestant and host city perspectives. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States started to re-evaluate its strategy towards China. With the U.S. intervention in Taiwan Strait, US-led NATO bombing of the PRC Embassy in Yugoslavia and fighter jets mid-air collision in Hainan Island (Hillman, 2004), Chinese nationalism has escalated to defy the U.S. containment policy. This was accomplished by China’s remarkable success in Olympic Games. Since the first gold medal in 1984 Los Angeles Game, Team China has moved up the medal table one spot higher each time from fifth in Barcelona 92’ to second in Athens 04’, and eventually overtaken the United States in 2008 at its home ground. Such phenomenal progress conveyed a message of China’s emergence as a world sports superpower, as well as the global power of influence. It could be argued that the resurgence of the Chinese nation through sports is a grand exhibition of its soft power, alongside its hard power like economic prosperity and military capabilities. As such, driven by the Chinese’s nationalist sentiment, sporting success has become an extension of the political power struggle between states in the contemporary international arena.

Furthermore, hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games can be seen as a consolidation of national unity. Yet, China had bid twice for it to happen. Under the Clinton administration, the United States began to criticise China on human rights issues with the aim to spread its neoliberal ideologies abroad, hence gain political and economic influence in Asia. Along China’s poor human rights record, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, and the political interference from the United States, Beijing failed its first bid marginally for the 2000 Olympics. The sense of disappointment and rejection had prompted an explosion of the Chinese nationalistic sentiment across the general public and the state. Induced by Huntington’s idea on the ‘clash of civilisation’, it was generally believed that Beijing’s lost bid was part of the Western containment policy, to prevent China from taking its rightful place on the world stage (Xu, 2008). Nevertheless, at its second attempt, Beijing willingly addressed the human rights criticism and environment issues, hence won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. More importantly, the successful bid should be considered as a nationwide joint-accomplishment.

Experts from all fields across the country, for instance, artists, economists, and overseas Chinese who had extensive experience in past Olympics biddings, were summoned to help the bid proposal (Sun, 2003). Therefore, China’s successful Olympics host was a milestone of the national revival. It showcased not only the rise of China in the global arena, but also the national solidarity of the state and its people, where China nationalism played an integral part along. The widespread protest worldwide during the Olympic torch relay has bolstered the Chinese nationalism. In response to the Free Tibet movement, the Boycott Beijing Olympics campaign and the deliberate attack of the disabled Chinese torchbearer by Tibetan exiles, western politicians and anti-China protesters respectively, the Chinese immediately launched ‘Boycott Carrefour’ and ‘Anti-CNN’ campaigns to display their nationalistic sentiment. The anti-Western sentiment ended with apologises from President Sarkozy and the Chairman of CNN. It could be contended that human rights issues and the Tibetan conflicts have never been resolved properly by the PRC before and after the Beijing Olympics. However, in this article’s discussion on the role of sports played in Chinese nationalism, the prompt yet radical response by the Chinese people towards the anti-China protests has showcased the strong national solidarity of China.

Politically, China intended to take advantage of the Beijing Olympics to strengthen the ‘One-Country’ emphasis with Hong Kong and promote the national reconciliation with Taiwan. Beijing and Hong Kong did reach an agreement and host the equestrian event in the special administrative region. Despite the mild pro-democracy protest, the equestrian event was well supported by the local state and welcomed by the majority of Hong Kong citizen, who shared the national pride with their mainland counterparts. The Beijing Olympics failed to play a constructive part in facilitating the national reconciliation with Taiwan. Specifically, there was disagreement across the Taiwan Strait on whether Taipei should be considered as the international or domestic part in the torch relay route. Taiwan’s ruling party decided to eliminate the Taipei leg, arguing that it would undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty since Taipei was put in the China’s domestic route of the relay. The attempt by Beijing to leverage its host city status to gain peaceful reunification with Taiwan was rather obvious. Nonetheless, it was a sensible move from Beijing side to consolidate Chinese nationalism and construct national identity through the Olympics Games, which Hong Kong equestrian event was a successful example.

Substantially, sports nationalism plays an essential role in China’s geopolitics with Japan and Hong Kong, which was illustrated in the 2004 Asian Cup Final and the 2015 World Cup Qualifier respectively. Rooted in the Nanjing Massacre, the China-Japan animosity was escalated at the cup final in Guangzhou. The football match was not only a 90-minute battle for national pride, but also a public display of resentment towards the Yasukuni Shine visits by Japanese leaders and the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands dispute. On top of the anti-Japan riots and Japanese flags being burnt, Chinese supporters insultingly booed the Japanese national anthem before kick-off and the team throughout the match. Whilst the Japanese government lodged a complaint and questioned whether Beijing could host the 2008 Olympics properly, the Chinese government refused to apologise but criticised only the ‘minority’ of the radical fans, and accused the Japanese media of exaggerating the issue. Contrary to the Ping-Pong diplomacy of ‘friendship first, competition second’ (Fan and Lu, 2015), the nationalistic sentiment expressed by the football fans and the Chinese government has further worsened Sino-Japanese relations, but at the same time, strengthened social cohesion and nationhood among the Chinese. However, the induced sports nationalism did not permeate to all parts of China.

While the majority of the media and netizens in Hong Kong criticised the radical behaviour of the Chinese fans, the simmering tension between China and Hong Kong was magnified in the recent 2015 World Cup Qualifier took place in the special administrative region. With the emergence of localism in Hong Kong, the clash aimed to quash China’s hope for a Russia World Cup place, which the home team succeeded. Yet, the China-Hong Kong conflict was perhaps the focal point of the match. Besides booing and denying their own national anthem, the Hong Kong fans chanted ‘We are Hong Kong’, ‘Hong Kong is Not China’ and even waved the old colonial flag. Alongside the pro- democracy movement, the localistic (perhaps a diminished form of nationalism) sentiment has reached its peak since the handover. Some may contend that football fans have an absolute right to freely express themselves, but arguably sports nationalism should only be displayed in a civilised and respectful manner. When a national anthem is played, regardless of the country, one should stand up and remain silent. One may argue that sports and politics should not be linked, but in reality it could be the political reasons that provide the main impetus for people to support the team. The nationalistic sentiment shown by fans is actually a representation of real-world politics, for instance, the historically embedded China-Japan animosity and the rising tension between China and Hong Kong. On one hand, sports strengthens the national identity amongst people, but on the other hand, sports nationalism could put state’s relations at stake if it is not exhibited legitimately. As such, sport nationalism has become a new dimension in China’s complex geopolitics.

Following Anderson’s (1983) concept of ‘imagined communities’ that a nation is socially constructed and perceived by the people who see themselves as part of it. In light of the change of foreign policy direction from Deng Xiaoping ‘Low Profile’ dictum to Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, which the focus of Chinese nationalism turns from pure- economy-only to soft power and international power status, sports has proved to be an ideal way to rejuvenate Chinese ethnicity, as well as to unite its people and enhance social cohesion. As discussed in this article, sport has played an integral part in Chinese nationalism and shaped China’s national image with the joint effort of athletes and the state. On one hand, nationalism has undoubtedly become the 12th man in China’s recent sporting achievement, displayed by the national sentiment from all parties across the country. On the other hand, whether or not sport has functioned as the new ping-pong table in enhancing China’s inter-state relations, as it did in the 1970s, remains debatable. It is true that sports nationalism has taken an enormous role in China’s domestic and foreign policies in modern times. However, the overall effect of such might not be as significant as it sounds, compared to the direct hard power (e.g. economic, political and military) considerations by China in global politics. Factors such as the macroeconomic situation and other states’ foreign policies remain crucial in China’s diplomacy. Nonetheless, sports will continue to be vital in Chinese nationalism. The 2016 Brazil Olympics would be interesting to watch, especially the ‘games’ played by political actors outside the arenas.

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