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Could sport be the catalyst for new relations with China?

By George Esmond
07 December 2021

By George Esmond

Francis Fukayama’s infamous book The End of History argued that the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, meant that humanity had reached the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy would be the final form of government.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and the meteoric rise of China as an economic power over the last two decades throws up the biggest challenge to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history argument’. This rise, once praised and economically facilitated by many global leaders - including President Clinton, David Cameron and Angela Merkel - has now raised alarm bells, as security chiefs warn of increasing antagonism on the part of Beijing.

In his first public speech, the Head of MI6 (or C) Richard Moore, warned that the “tectonic plates are shifting” as Beijing’s power, and its willingness to assert it, is growing, and is becoming increasingly hostile.

Across the west, governments have been intensifying their rhetoric towards Beijing and discussing what new forms of soft power can help tame the Chinese dragon.

And they may have found their answer: sport.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) last week announced the suspension of all tournaments in China, amid concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. This came in the wake of an ongoing and high-profile row with Beijing over the player’s wellbeing, after she accused 75-year-old former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of having coerced her into sex.

Beijing has tried to quell the situation, releasing a series of videos and photos in an attempt to show Peng’s regular activity inside China. But despite repeated assurances from Beijing, the WTA insisted that it remains “deeply concerned” about Peng, adding: “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback.”

The move marked a paradigm shift in how sports associations have dealt with China, as the country becomes more assertive in its way of handling both domestic and international affairs. In the past, many sports organisations – from football to basketball – have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing for fear of losing access to its substantial market.

But the decision by the WTA, which could subsequently lose over £20m from the move, has left China in a dilemma and western states with an opportunity. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European leaders are using the incident to discuss whether to boycott next year’s winter Olympics, while the Biden administration confirmed the US will not send an official US delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics, in a clear message that such actions cannot continue. The move would leave China out in the cold and make the event a farce, thirteen years on from the summer Olympics that made their mark on the global stage.

Beijing could rectify the situation by releasing Peng back onto the tennis tour but in doing so, they would risk her becoming the latest global voice speaking out against the regime and detailing the current environment she is reportedly suffering, which makes the possibility unlikely.

It is clear the end of China’s current history with the west is coming to end, and sport may just be the vehicle for setting out its new future relations with the west.