Don’t expect the Chinese Communist Party to have a sense of humor when it comes to the Olympics. Long before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the games were already serious state business, providing an ambitious government the means by which to demonstrate to itself, its citizens and maybe the world, that China, too, is a great power.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that China’s state-run news media took a dim view of reporters who kicked off their Sochi coverage last week by tweeting complaints about their hotel rooms. The defense was fierce and quick: “Booing Sochi only shows West’s Bigotry,” was how China's Global Times headlined an English-language editorial criticizing -- among other things -- the foreign media’s complaints. China, it noted in self-pitying terms, knew just how Russia felt: “Since the ending of the Cold War, only the 2008 Beijing Games and the ongoing Sochi Games have experienced such criticism.”
As a matter of Olympic history, this doesn't seem right: The 2004 Athens Games, for example, were arguably subject to far worse and more sustained criticisms than Beijing or Sochi.
But historical nuance isn’t the point of the Global Times’s editorial (which was also republished in the English-language edition of the People’s Daily, the self-declared mouthpiece of the Communist Party). Politics, in hysterical terms, is the goal: “The West is currently still leading the development of human civilization. But the noises around the Sochi Games have once again shown the narrow mind of the West. Such a value orientation could be a threat to the world's future.”
Politicization of the games is nothing new. For decades -- maybe since the 1964 Games in Tokyo -- the Olympics have been a means by which a developing nation demonstrates its emergence into the club of respected countries. Beijing used the 2008 Games in that way, and Russia is trying to do so in 2014.
Yet, it seems that from the perspective of the Communist Party and its media outlets, it's only OK to politicize the Olympics if the Chinese are doing the politicizing. This argument -- effectively the propaganda equivalent of a twisting double back flip off a ski jump -- was most recently attempted by the Global Times, which wrote in Feb. 6 editorial : “The Sochi Games have been politicized by Western public opinion and Russia is facing the same scenario as China in 2008.” Several paragraphs later the editors concluded, with reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to attend the games: “The Sino-Russian friendship is a significant pillar of world peace and balanced global power, which is further proved by the Sochi Winter Games.”
The Chinese public -- at least as represented by its response on the country’s various social networks and blogs -- isn’t nearly as worked up over tweeted slights by reporters. This also shouldn't be surprising: Though Putin is a relatively popular figure in China, the Winter Olympics really aren’t, especially as compared with the wildly popular Summer Games. The reasons for this are several, the most important of which is that China isn’t competitive in many winter events, and the Chinese public isn’t (yet) familiar with the finer points of winter sports like luge, the skiathlon and snowboarding.
But if the Chinese can’t -- or won’t -- appreciate bobsleigh, they definitely know a good opening ceremony (Beijing having held a widely acclaimed opening ceremony in 2008). Was Sochi’s opening ceremony acceptable in the eyes of the Chinese public? It’s hard to say, because all anybody in China seems to want to talk about is the malfunction of the giant snowflake that was supposed to transform into one of the five Olympic rings.
That snowflake was a matter of some sensitivity in image-conscious Russia, where Russian television cut to opening ceremony rehearsal footage that showed the ring when it was working, rather than show the misstep. The Chinese saw the moment more as an opportunity for humor: Shortly after the ceremonies ended, spoofs of the Russian rings started to appear in odd corners of China’s Internet, with users replacing the defective snowflake with everything from a condom to a computer anti-virus logo. Some microbloggers pointed out that the four opened rings strongly resembled Audi’s four circle logo (and thus an episode of ambush marketing), and still others noted that the far right Olympic ring -- represented by the malfunctioning snowflake -- once represented the North American continent (a symbolism that the International Olympic Committee officially consigned to history in 1951), thereby implying, jokingly, darker political motives for the failed deployment.
Whatever the explanation for the malfunction, entrepreneurial Chinese have quickly turned the event into a business opportunity. According to Xinhua, China’s state-owned newswire, Chinese shoppers can now buy Sochi ring T-shirts -- complete with the defective snowflake -- online. One vendor apparently sold “around 250” such shirts in the space of two days. No data was given on who the customers are, but presumably most of them could care less what their government has to say about the bigotry of the West toward the Sochi Games.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter.)
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