Friday, May 19, 2017

The discrete fragility of the superpower

The discrete fragility of the superpower

Dr. Gilles Klein, 19 May 2017

Since the 1970s, China has built twenty-four large stadiums in Africa. Stadiums of a Chinese-African friendship that are coming to symbolize the cooperation between the “Middle Kingdom” and the African countries. The truth is that the stadiums are just some sports illustrations of “win-win” financial operations of the Chinese in Africa: an exchange of underground resources against the delivery of civil engineering works. Until the 1970s, China was content to build solidarity between the two continents and their under developed countries. This solidarity was symbolized by a Chinese technician who came to assist the brother country recently liberated from its colonial guardianship. But China’s increasing oil needs led to these new deals, which characterize a new economic South-South play, which according to Beijing, there would not be a priori any losing partner.


That time, on 28 June 2008, is really China that inaugurates its stadium, the Beijing national stadium, nicknamed the bird nest. Which spectator of the Beijing Olympic Games had not been impressed by its architecture and its references. The bird nest is a wonderful tangle of steel girders intended to imitate the twigs of a birds nest. But it is also 423 million US dollars, 91,000 seats, four and half working years. The nest is the result of a call for tender that was the chance for the greatest architects to compete. But the nest is more than a stadium. Its architecture reflects the new Chinese diplomacy. Through sport, China is back at the front of the international scene. A comeback that is commented on by Jacques Herzog, one of the two Swiss architects. He said to the New York Times: “such a stadium couldn't see the light of day other than in China”. Not only can China achieve its diplomatic takeoff, but it can also show that it is a superpower. To achieve it, it needs to prove it on the field.


However, in Beijing, another bird flies away. A bird named Usein Bolt. He succeeds in “spread his wings like a bird taking off from the nest” [1]. On 16 August 2008, he breaks the world record of 100 meters in 9 seconds 69. All are remembering the run, the record, but also the show. Some dancing steps at the departure. Running, he defies his opponents. He could have pulverized the record. Most important was to win the largest number of medals. Surrounded by the Caribbean sprinters, the American Walter Dix manages with difficulty to win the Bronze medal. In that run, China is not able to compete. Hu Kai finished eighth in the quarter-final.


The evening of 20 August is symbolic. Bolt beats the Americans Shawn Crawford and Walter Dix. He dispossesses the American Michael Johnson of his 200 meters world record established twelve years ago. In that run, China doesn’t exist. The Chinese Zhang Peimeng ranks the last of the eighth series. The Jamaican leaves Beijing with 9 gold medals. Even if one will be withdrawn after the disqualification from the 4x100 meters for a positive test of one of the runners, one remembers from Beijing the Jamaican team, the boys and girls, who have totally eclipsed from the nest, like a cuckoo, the Americans who left without any titles. China doesn’t appear in the track record.


If Jamaica eclipses the United States from the sprint track record, if China is not able to compete, the Games organizing country relegates the Americans to second place in the Games general track record. In Athens, four years before, the United States (35 titles), China (32 titles) and Russia (28 titles) took the first places in the medals ranking. But in Beijing, the Chinese win the bet appearing as a sports superpower winning the largest titles number (51) and took down the Americans from their undisputed leadership since 1992. Admittedly, the American delegation obtained the largest medals number, across all metals. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) counts only the Olympic titles to establish the final track record. The American medias put forward the whole medals number to minimize the defeat. But China slaps the United States in the face. It became THE sports superpower. China built it success on its strong points. In gymnastics, the Chinese obtain the gold medal in nine events. They take over table tennis, diving, and badminton. They shine in shooting and combat sports. Team sports remain the weak point, with only one bronze medal.


China has other weak points. In athletics, Chinese people awaited impatiently Liu Xiang’s performance in the 110 hurdle meters. He arrived in the bird nest, holder of the gold medal obtained in Athens and of the world discipline record. But he starts only to build the nickname of “Olympic Games cursed”. He didn’t arrive in Beijing at his best. The Cuban Dayron Robles deprived him of his world record two months before the Games. An injury picked up before the Games has forced him to withdraw from a series at the occasion of a false start by one of his opponents. He leaves the stadium in front of the Chinese public’s stunned shock. He is not able to compete with his challengers, the American David Payne and David Oliver. In turn, they are defeated in the final by the Cuban Dayron Robles.

He Kexin

In gymnastics, China’s leadership is incontestable. The boys win all the gold medals, including the team competition, in which the Americans obtain only the bronze medal. Thanks to Nastia Liukin, the American girls are able to compete with the Chinese. The Chinese success in gymnastics is symbolized by the young He Kexin who is noted during her routine at the asymmetric bars. She produced one of the most difficult deliveries in the world, estimated at 7,7 points. Among the figures, one particularly remembers her very aerial Tkatchev-Salto pak. On 18 August 2008, she wins the gold medal at this apparatus in front of the American Nastia Liukin. A medal that was added to the team gold medal. She became world champion during the year following Beijing.


But his success symbolizes a discrete fragility of the Chinese superpower. A two faceted fragility, both sporting and geopolitical. Let us start with the sporting fragility. Before competing, the principle of He Kexin’s participation has been questioned. Indeed, the Olympic Games regulations require the athletes to be a minimum of 16 years old to take part in the women’ artistic gymnastics competitions. Whilst China declared the gymnast to be 16 years old, she was in fact 13 years old at the moment of the competitions. Following several meanders, the international gymnastics federation concluded that He Kexin and her teammates, upon which the same doubts remain, were old enough to participate. But they are these meanders that reveal the second superpower fragility.


If He’s strength is her skill level, her weakness lies with her non-respect of the international regulations. This weakness illustrates the Chinese strategy to want to shine at all costs in the stadiums at the risk of flouting the international sports rules. The reason was probably to defend at all costs this comeback in front of the international scene and better contribute to a superpower image. In that case, for the Chinese gymnastics team, the essentials should not be noticed.


Yet, a modest Chinese blogger put a grain of sand in the Chinese superpower bet, while destabilizing the international sports institutions. This web user finds a document of the Chinese ministry of sports that proves the gymnast’s true age. Indeed, in the 2006 and 2007 versions of the online register, 1994 is He Kexin’s real year birth year. The gymnast is genuinely 14 years old and thus not able to compete. These documents are a point of disorder among the international sports institutions. IOC requested the launch of an inquiry following the release of these files on the web. Finally, the international gymnastics federation validated the participation and the medals. Here, therefore, is the first fragility.


The second is geopolitical. The contestation of the Chinese blogger reveals the failures of the Chinese armor. In China, the armor of ancient times was made with an assembly of leather and iron. The web user drove a wedge between the two materials giving a geopolitical turn to the sports fault. Not wanting, not able to confront the censorship, he transmitted his work to an American blogger to get them to publish the results of his researches, outside the grasp of censorship. For him, the essentials were not gymnastics or sports regulations. Instead, it was a matter of contesting the censorship that applied in the country and affirms a freedom towards the superpower. He declared: “Caution; it does not concern an Anti-Chinese post. I don’t take care a bit about the gymnast’s age. I want to prove that it will always be possible to get around the censorship” [2]. His rebellion has been equally successful. Dozens of readers proceeded with a safeguard of the files on their own blogs keeping henceforth indelible proof of He Kexin’s age.


In 2008, there was more than the bloggers’ grain of sand in the superpower wheels. Reinforced repression, numerous arrests, the human rights situation were a veritable stone in the Chinese shoe. The authorities addressed the question with, how shall I say, a certain amount of diplomacy. The People’s Daily, press institution of the Chinese communist party explained that China would organize “a high-level Olympic meeting with Chinese characteristics”. Even if a question did remain, the confidence was entrusted to the Chinese authorities. In effect, when it applied for candidature, Beijing claimed that the Games would lead to a China’s alignment in the international practices including the human rights recommendations.


We already pointed it out in previous articles. The organizers of the major sports events are looking to guarantee the countries' stability to favor investors’ confidence. The Chinese authorities are no exception to the rule. The Games allowed them to repress any kind of order dissent on behalf of the Games stability. On the eve of Olympic Games, the President Hu Jintao and his Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have increased arrests and domestic residence visits. The fear of political rumpus in the middle of sports festival activated their repressive energy. The article “These Chinese who would not see the Games” [3] explains the mechanisms working thanks to the harmonisation process undertaken by the Chinese authorities: “On behalf of the Games, numerous the recalcitrant Beijing-based have been “harmonised” (based on the “social harmonisation” slogan of the President Hu Jintao), it means displaced or muffled (…) The non-governmental organization Amnesty International is not wrong affirming that the repression against the human rights defenders was aggravated in China and that “not just despite the Games but due to the Games”.


In Beijing, in the bird nest and on the other facilities, China satisfied its objective to become a superpower. The access to this status assumed winning the medals competition, notably facing the United States. It also met it at a cost of safeguarding at all costs social stability. As pointed out by Professor Shen Dingli of the Fudan University in Shangaï, it is really the instability risk that worries China, on both interior and exterior levels. But the observers know that well, in Beijing, sport was just the communicant illusion of the “Chinas’ searing development that rushes the powers”.


But also a development that “seriously complicates its relationships with the United States”. What was shown in the bird tree was just the reflection of the duel between two superpowers to win the world leadership. For China, becoming a superpower assumes to absolutely keep a fragile balance between China and the United States. According to Shen Dingli, on the worldwide scene, Beijing and Washington play at frightening one another[4]. Four years after the Games, he described the relationships between the two countries thus: “the China’s ascension is no big surprise: it was inscribed within history, once the society opened itself to the market economy at the moment when the globalization started to streamline the persons, capital, and information circulation. After all, Beijing does not put the gun on the anyone’s head. The American investors seized the opportunity that was offered to them to take advantage of a low-cost manpower. While the Chinese developed their industry, the Americans consumed at best deal and let to others their pollutant manufactories. The exchange triggered tangible benefits while producing pernicious sustainable effects, in terms of employment in the United States and an environment in China”.

Next: 19 May 2017 – Whistle is not play

[1] Usain Bolt illumine le Nid d'oiseau, La Figaro, 18 August 2008,
[2] Foi de bloggeur, He Kexin avait bien 14 ans, Médiapart, Plus vite, plus haut, plus fort, 21 August 2008,
[3] Ces Chinois qui ne verront pas les Jeux, Le Temps, 25.07.2008,

[4] Shen Dingli, Pékin et Washington jouent à se faire peur Le Monde diplomatique, May 2012, pages 14 et 15.



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