25 October 2016
China's Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui has created a sensation by her warm and likeable character. Photo: Xinhua
China's Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui has created a sensation by her warm and likeable character. Photo: Xinhua

What China can learn from Fu Yuanhui about soft power

The Olympic Games has always been capable of inspiring us.

Now the excitement from the Rio de Janeiro games has died down, it would be good if we can look back and perhaps learn from lessons from the way some athletes responded to all the drama, controversy and celebration.

For Hong Kong, the Games are a reminder that we are not a big place, and – if we are honest – that sport is not our strong point.

In a way, that makes the performances of our athletes more impressive.

Mountain biker Chan Chun-hing, golfer Tiffany Chan, cyclist Sarah Lee and the others achieved real personal successes just getting as far as they did in Rio.

Their individual effort and dedication are an example to us all. At the very least, as some of our officials have noted, their commitment should remind us of the importance of getting more exercise.

For China’s national team, the 2016 Games was a mixture of disappointment and joy.

For the last five games, China has seen its sporting performance – especially the number of gold medals – as a sign of its overall rise as a world power.

This culminated with the great success of the Beijing Games in 2008, when the host country topped the medal table with 51 golds.

This was obviously not sustainable, but to drop to second place in 2012, and then to third this year in Rio has disappointed many Chinese fans.

Actually, there were some success stories for the Chinese squad.

But perhaps the greatest moments came courtesy of swimmer Fu Yuanhui.

Her natural way of speaking was a pleasure to hear and her comments on getting a bronze made people laugh.

Amid tension over things like doping allegations, she won fans not only in China but around the world.

Mainland media started to put a new angle on Olympics stories. Rather than being a serious event that concerned national pride and honor, the Games were more fun and focused on individuals’ personalities and efforts.

The big question is: if China can be more relaxed about the Olympics, can it also have a more relaxed relationship with the world in general?

China’s astounding growth over the past 30 years has had a huge effect worldwide. Chinese-made consumer goods have penetrated global markets and households.

As mainland incomes have risen, Chinese tourists have started to travel, often in very large numbers.

China has become a major importer of raw materials. More recently, Chinese capital has started to flow overseas in search of investment opportunities.

Despite the many benefits from the increased trade, investment and global engagement, China has struggled to gain the international respect it feels it deserves.

Its cheap exports and, recently, overcapacity have disrupted smaller overseas markets.

The quantity (and behavior) of Chinese tourists have been hard for some destinations to manage.

Chinese money has been blamed for sharp rises in housing prices in cities like Vancouver.

China’s overseas image has not been helped by its officials’ apparent defensiveness and tendency to use stiff language and slogans.

The country’s growing international influence is raising suspicions in parts of global community.

Meanwhile, it faces critical domestic challenges like economic adjustment, pollution and inequality, and the government is tightening its grip politically.

China has a “soft power” problem.

It needs more than cuddly panda bears and a clownish star like Jackie Chan to fix it.

Then along comes, Fu Yuanhui.

This young woman aged just 20 turns a supposedly disappointing bronze medal into a national “soft power” success just by being herself.

There is no secret to her popularity.

She doesn’t pretend to be perfect. She can laugh at herself. She doesn’t follow a prearranged script.

She is friendly, warm and likeable. If China as a nation wants to win in the international “soft power” games, it could learn from Fu how to loosen up and relax.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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