Sun Yang became an “international outcast” at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju. Despite his stunning performance, his consecutive win in 400-meter free, and another gold in 200-meter free, the Chinese swimming star was shunned by other swimmers on international stage. Some even chose not to share the podium with Sun Yang and refused to be taken photos of along with him. Their protest earned support from many other swimmers as well.
The “anti-Sun Yang” sentiment is based on the perception that he won the gold on doping. Five years ago, he was caught using performance enhancing drugs but only suspended for three months, a mere slap on the wrist considering the gravity of the issue. Last year, he stood in the middle of controversy, smashing his blood sample with a hammer to sabotage the test last year. Those fundamentally disturbing crimes notwithstanding, he has not faced any punishment he duly deserves. Hence, the strike from the swimmers.
Meanwhile, Sun Yang is talking nonsense. The Chinese swimmer argues that the alleged doping is groundless, and the real issue at hand is tyranny of powerful countries. America and Europe have traditionally been a swimming powerhouse, while Asia or Africa was always on the fringe. Sun Yang is claiming that the mainstreamers are attacking him as the traditional power dynamics in swimming is swerving. Indeed, the swimmers who criticized Sun Yang are Australian and British.
Sun Yang’s rationale rings a bell as it is quite similar with China’s argument on Huawei issues. The U.S. launched an attack against Huawei from late last year, citing that the Chinese firm violated sanctions on Iran. Washington added another line of logic that Huawei poses a threat to “information security” as it is serving as a spy for the Chinese Communist Party. In response, Beijing rebutted that the sanctions from Washington are designed to check Huawei’s growing dominance in global IT market including 5G wireless technologies.
Experts say that the two different issues share some similar logic since for China, sports are only a means of national propaganda. Having emerged both as a military and an economic powerhouse, China has invested billions of dollars in soft power since the dawn of 2000. A diplomacy that oppresses others with (military or economic) power is “hard power.” and one that moves the heart of people with culture or sports is called “soft power.” There is a saying that goes, “master soft power if you want to be loved, and master hard power, if you want to be feared.”
The Chinese Swimming Association called the issue surrounding Sun Yang “unacceptable.” China will likely maintain its current stance. Then, it will erode the country’s soft power assets and fuel conflicts here and there despite its best intentions.