China-EU or EU-China Sports Diplomacy?

China-EU or EU-China Sports Diplomacy?


Earlier this month (December 2017), the team of China Football 8 was invited to participate in the ‘Seminar on Sport Diplomacy’ in Brussels. The seminar was organised by the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission, as a follow-up to the High-Level Group on sports diplomacy set up in 2015 by Commissioner Tibor Navracsics in order to elaborate political initiatives and recommendations in this field. The group included active and former athletes, academics, think-tank and media representatives. In an interview with the think-tank ‘Sport et Citoyenneté‘, Mr Navracsics indicated that the High-Level Group’s work might lead to more coordinated efforts by the EU Member States to harness the potential of sport for diplomacy and ‘make the EU a stronger global actor.’

On November 2016, the General Secretariat of the Council issued its conclusions on sports diplomacy. Sport is considered ‘a possible tool in supporting intercultural, economic and political cooperation and understanding between nations and cultures’. Moreover, sport is assigned the ability to ‘shape perceptions in order to support reaching broader foreign policy goals’ and promoting values such as ‘fair play, equality, respect for diversity, integrity, discipline, excellence, friendship, tolerance and mutual understanding which bring different people and countries together.’ Projects related to sports diplomacy should be realised through the EU funding programmes in the area of EU External Relations as well as through the Erasmus+ programme.

Against the background of these developments, the big question is of course: what are the target countries? And within the framework of this blog, the obvious question is whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could be a target country or even a partner of EU sports diplomacy.

According to Professor Thierry Zintz, the Dean of the Faculty of Sports Sciences of the Université Catholique de Louvain and rapporteur of the High-Level Group, sport is a source of cultural soft power. This definition fits very well with the official statements of Mr Xi Jinping, President of the PRC. On October 2017, Mr Xi Jinping delivered a report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) where he revealed that China’s political leadership will ‘speed up efforts to build China into a powerful sports nation’. To achieve this goal, the CPC ‘will strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges with other countries, giving prominence to Chinese culture while also drawing on other cultures, […] improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.’

The concept of soft power has been used and abused in studies about China in recent years. The major problems are the imprecise contextualisation, wording, quantifying and application of this concept. Some argue it is no longer relevant in the context of sport mega-events. Nonetheless, the very vague derivation and interpretation of the concept is also used in the context of the developmental aspirations in Chinese football and the hosting of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games.

One month after Mr Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th National Congress of the CPC, Mr Navracsics and Chinese Vice-Premier Mrs Liu Yandong met on the occasion of the 4th EU-China High-Level People-to-People Dialogue in Shanghai. In this context, the topic of sports was discussed for the first time.

However, the question remains whether China is a target of European sports diplomacy, or whether it is perhaps the other way round! The fact is that there are various cooperation opportunities associated with sports, such as in fields of health, governance, economics, education, etc. Sport in general, and football, in particular, have a multi-dimensional impact on human beings: they attract a lot of attention, trigger emotions and create a strong sense of belonging or rejection, have increasing economic weight, and immediate implications on public health. Sport is indeed a promising avenue for engaging in People-to-People dialogue not only on ‘high level’, but also between sportspeople and citizens.

It remains to be seen whether the diplomatic relations between the EU and China in this specific field will lead to mutual influence and exchange, beyond ‘soft-power’ posturing.

Seminar on Sport Diplomacy (1)
Seminar on Sport Diplomacy (2)

Ilker Gündogan

Ilker Gündogan is a PhD candidate at the Ruhr-University Bochum and the ESSCA School of Management. His research focuses on China’s football politics and market creation in the era of Xi Jinping.
Ilker Gündogan

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