The 2012 London Olympic Games are over, and China has once again confirmed its status as a great sporting nation. It is quite informative to see how China obtained this status and the role sports plays in Chinese politics.
In the 1980s, when China first embarked on its market reforms, it lacked confidence in its dealings with other countries. The government realized the country needed a taste of success.
Realizing the potential sports held, the government mobilized considerable human and material resources, putting the propaganda machine into top gear and pushing the national appetite for sports to fever pitch. Its efforts to encourage the development of sports paid off, and winning gave the Chinese people a real sense of pride in their achievements, reinforcing national cohesiveness. Those who were successful in competitions were publicly lauded, sometimes even regarded as national heroes. The flip side was that the less successful competitors returned home to a cold reception.
At the time, the political imperative was expressed in slogans calling for the reinvigoration of “Mother China,” and the national fervor for sport was born as much from the emotional needs of the people as from the government’s political needs. Wu Shaozu (伍紹祖), director-general of the Chinese General Administration of Sports from 1988 to 2000, has commented on how, when China first embarked on its reforms, it was trailing quite far behind more advanced nations, and needed something in which it could perform well, for the sake of both the state and the public. For this reason, he said, the value of gold medals far exceeded the significance they entailed purely in sporting terms because they came to represent the success of the Chinese people.
The real significance of national sport extended beyond political cohesion for the government: The political implications ran much deeper. The image of sport conjured by the orchestrated, synchronized dance performances, which formed the core of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, has subtly influenced the Chinese national psyche. This image is one of falling in line with the group, of order, structure and synchronicity, all of which are beneficial to the prevailing political ideology. The mass exercise sessions with instructions hailed out over loudspeakers, which were once popular in China, are a classic example.
The essayist Zhu Dake (朱大可) has written on the cultural relevance of these mass exercise sessions, identifying three aspects pertinent to politics. First, they are a collective activity, for which people are called together; second, each participant is expected to perform identical actions; and finally, they involve the unquestioned obedience to the relayed instructions.
“The nature of these exercise sessions has remained the same from their inception until the present day. They involve the coming together of large numbers of individuals to engage in absolutely identical movements. Their purpose is to achieve a unity of purpose in the participants and forge a spirit of collectivism. However, the time of collective activity, with everyone keeping in perfect step with each other, should have been consigned to history quite some time ago,” Zhu said.
Sport is about national influence — a manifestation of soft power.
However, in China it has become a byword for official ideology. The excessive preoccupation with sporting achievement is about overcoming the national inferiority complex. This lay right at the heart of the Olympics for the Chinese.