China embracing soft power

China’s recent offer to the International Olympic Committee to provide vaccinations for Olympic athletes in Tokyo is an important reminder of soft power opportunities the Chinese government continues to take advantage of. China also has shipped thousands upon thousands of vaccines to Zimbabwe and other countries, affirming its goal of ensuring the world finds relief from coronavirus.

Soft power often is criticized for being little more than public relations at best, propaganda at worst.

But that misses the point: Soft power often is best demonstrated by countries with hard power capability.

Returning to what China is doing reminds us of what too many Western nations are not.

The West seems stuck right now with too many nations fighting yesterday’s battles, or distracted by internal upheaval.

Consider just three examples: the uncertainty about Germany’s immediate political future; the crises engulfing France; the potential that the United Kingdom might shrink, as Scotland appears ready to go it alone. 

While the leaders of these and other nations want to close borders, argue about culture wars, escalate the worst forms of nationalism, or limit economic growth for the most vulnerable of their populations, Beijing delivers actions that benefit the globe. Recent comments from some nations about a potential boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is another example of trying to fit yesterday’s answers into a 21st century world.

Most notably tried, and found vacuous, in 1980 and 1984, Olympic boycotts do not work.

In 1980 and 1984, the International Olympic Committee made clear it wouldn’t move the summer Games from the host city because of political pressure, no matter from which side of the Iron Curtain it came. A similar message was delivered before and after the Cold War. To borrow a phrase made famous by former IOC president Avery Brundage: the Games must go on.

The IOC contends politics and sports shouldn’t mix. Clearly, they do. Nevertheless, marrying the two concepts through boycotts is foolish. The scheduled events aren’t halted. The advertisers don’t pull out. The participating athletes still do their best.

And that brings us back to this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Delayed, by necessity, for one year because of coronavirus, the Games will again allow for some of the best athletes from all over the globe to come together in multiple competitions. That is, if health conditions allow for it.

China is prepared to aid that effort through its offer of vaccinations. You might think that making one international sporting event safer is not a big deal. But remember, there will be no Games if the IOC and Tokyo’s organizers cannot keep the athletes, coaches and staff safe.

Beijing realizes that. The IOC does as well.

Let’s admit that the value of international sport goes far beyond dollars and cents. The doors it opens to improved understanding of societies is immensely important. Fifty years ago, a table tennis team from the United States visited China. The goodwill from that brief time soon led to a U.S. president going to China and ending a quarter century of diplomatic silence between the two lands. President Nixon’s provided one of the many sparks that soon saw China re-enter the global community, including participating in the Olympics. I remember attending many of the events in 1984, when China took part in the Summer Olympics for the first time in 32 years. During those Olympics, China’s men and women were rewarded for their efforts; the country won the fourth-most medals, laying the foundation for future successes.

China is pursuing a 21st century agenda, and it includes using the country’s resources to be an ambassador in Asia and beyond. You may react how you wish, but you also must accept that China will go it alone if the West is unable or unwilling to be a partner in these efforts.

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