Responding to calls for diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Chinese government and state-run media have repeatedly opposed what they call the “politicization of sports.” But China’s leaders have closely tied the international sporting event to the broader political goal of burnishing the national image, what Xi Jinping has called “telling the China story” – and official discourse makes clear that the Chinese Communist Party is applying broad controls on information to stave off criticism and ensure that the Games are a public opinion success.
At China’s first Global Media Innovation Forum, held last month in Beijing, the CCP’s propaganda chief, Huang Kunming (黄坤明), said that China had already made preparations for Olympic reporting by “our friends in the global media,” and he hoped that everyone would work together to create “a positive and healthy public opinion environment.” This phrase, a regular centerpiece of the Party’s press control vocabulary, describes an atmosphere where “positive voices” prevail through a process known as “public opinion guidance,” meaning that controls on media and the internet ensure social and political stability.
For China’s leaders, the Beijing Winter OIympics are so much more than a sporting event, and they are supremely political. When Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), a deputy propaganda minister and president of the state media conglomerate China Media Group (CMG), addressed the group’s top Party leaders last week, he spoke of preparations for the Winter Olympics and hopes of new breakthroughs in “guiding international society to a more concrete and profound sense of the credibility, love-ability and respectability of China in the new era.” These words directly invoked Xi Jinping’s remarks in May last year at a collective study session of the CCP’s Politburo, where he addressed China’s external propaganda and messaging.
Such talk of positivity might sound relatable to some observers of the Winter Olympics. After all, why shouldn’t the Chinese government hope for a positive outcome? But it’s important to understand that such positive messages for the world are purchased at the expense of open expression in China. Today, the country faces controls on speech that are more stringent than at any point in the reform era. And when the spirit of “positive and healthy public opinion” is expressed alongside talk of “promoting the Olympic spirit,” as it was in Huang’s speech, we should recognize that this is part of the legacy of these Olympic Games.
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the “Cultural Legacy Report” (文化遗产报告) released recently by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (北京2022年冬奥会和冬残奥会组织委员会), which describes the cultural impact that preparations for the Games have had over the past six years. In a section on the media, the report notes that “the authority and influence of domestic mainstream media platforms has been fully utilized to guide public opinion and bring out the mainstream voice.”
There are important shades of meaning here that should be made explicit. While the word “mainstream” refers in a global context to ideas or attitudes that are regarded as normal or conventional in a given society, the word “mainstream,” or zhuliu (主流), refers in the PRC context to the consensus political view as determined by the CCP and by Party-state media. Forming the “mainstream” is a key objective for the leadership, and what is essentially meant by “public opinion guidance.”
The Beijing Organizing Committee makes the process seem so casual — as though this is a simple question of publicity — but when it talks about “guiding public opinion” (引导舆论) and “bringing out the mainstream voice” (发挥主流声音), this is fundamentally about amplifying Party-state voices at the expense of dissenting voices and views.
There has been a good deal of reporting outside China of the restrictions foreign journalists face in China, and that athletes are likely to face during the Winter Olympics, as though the question of press freedom in the country hinges on the extent to which international media are free to report. Without minimizing the importance of such concerns, it is crucial to be mindful of the insurmountable restrictions now facing Chinese journalists, and the complete dominance of the Olympic story by politically trusted Party-state media.
Who are the media reporting the Olympic story? The “Cultural Legacy Report” from the Beijing Organizing Committee names the People’s Daily, the flagship publication of the CCP, Xinhua News Agency, the Party’s official newswire, the gigantic China Media Group and other such “mainstream media.” And since Beijing is the host city, the report also mentions the Beijing Daily, the official publication of the municipal CCP committee, as well as Beijing Evening News, a commercial spin-off controlled by Beijing Daily. A whole range of domestic platforms will of course offer content on the Games, drawing on material sourced primarily from these “mainstream” sources. But Party-state media will set the tone, what the CCP likes to call the “main theme” (主旋律), and propaganda authorities will be keeping a close eye on print, broadcast and cyberspace to ensure no voices are left to chance.
As the Beijing Winter Olympics are exploited to “tell the China story,” we should remember that there are voices that cannot be heard — and that the suppression of these voices and the amplification of the CCP’s “mainstream” voice is a deeply political act.