ISSN 2330-717X

Li Na And China: Sports As Soft Power? – Analysis


By Namrata Hasija

Is Li Na’s win at the French Open another example of the multifaceted rise of China in the global scenario? Is she an independent phenomenon? Or is she an outcome of a long term investment by China in sports, as a part of its soft power projections?

The rise of China in the last two decades has been phenomenal in the fields of economics, military power and inclusive growth. To address negative concerns about this rise in the West, China has been pursuing its soft power options through the medium of culture, especially movies, sports, arts and music. It has very effectively used its soft power in the same way the US did during the Cold War era. The promotion of soft power helps in two ways; one is in maintaining China’s peaceful rise and the other in helping it gain international appeal.


On Li Na’s rise; how far should the role of the Chinese government be commended? Is the promotion of sports as soft power a success story for China?

Li Na, 29-year-old from Wuhan, defeated defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy to become not only the first Chinese but also the first Asian to win a Grand Slam singles title. Her rise to stardom has been unconventional according to the Chinese yardstick. She started her career as a badminton player during her childhood, but her coach felt she was ‘not good enough’ and that tennis would be a better option. Tennis was not popular in China at the time, but she took it up at the insistence of her coach who recognized her talent early on. After many fruitless attempts to make it big in the Grand Slams, Li left her career in 2002 to study. However, she returned after being coaxed by the Chinese authorities, and eventually won the 2004 WTA title in Guangzhou.

Unable to capitalize on her 2004 win, Li Na, who is known for her impatient and unconventional ways, decided to break away from the supervision of the state after the 2008 Olympics. Li decided to build her career on her own and reached the finals of the Australian Open this January. Her win was raised to a mythic status by the Chinese media with quotes like “the China-red clay court at Roland Garros symbolized a miraculous victory for the country” and “Li bravely seized the French title and wrote an Asian legend.” Chinese authorities and officials also came forward and recorded their appreciation for her achievement. Her win was hailed by the Chinese tennis chief, Sun Jinfang, as “a massive source of pride” and “a breakthrough in a sport that has been dominated mainly by players from Europe, Australia and the Americas.” Li herself commented that her win would encourage many youngsters in China to take up tennis and win international tournaments.

Sports successfully hold together several different elements: the contribution of individual players, championing by members of civil society and supportive efforts by the government. The successful hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games by China (where they also had the highest medal tally) not only convinced the world of its sporting might but also helped China in the economic and political amphitheatre.
The Chinese sports policy has undergone many phases since its inception, from training for work and military defense during the Mao era to the current Olympic strategy. The first stage from 1949-52 focused on preparing citizens for work and the military. This shifted to the Soviet model from 1952-60. It was then developed as a tool for the promotion of diplomacy and the creation of competitive athletes from 1966-76. Finally, in the 1980s, the current Olympic policy was implemented, which produces young stars and Olympic winners for the country.

From the above overview a clear picture of the evolution of the Chinese sports strategy emerges, as also the current scenario in which the government focuses on nurturing potential talent from early adolescence, creating international sporting icons like basketball player Yao Ming, Olympic hurdle champion Liu Xiang and snooker star Ding Junhui. The latest addition to this list is tennis player and French Open winner Li Na. This can be substantiated by looking at the Olympic medal tally of China over the last decade. From 16 golds, 22 silvers and 12 bronzes in 1996, to 51 golds, 21 silvers and 28 bronzes in 2008, when it topped the gold medal tally, China has developed its sports to the utmost.

While the Western media is highlighting the win of Li Na as that of a rebel who was successful after breaking away form the umbrella of Chinese authority, one should not forget that she was nurtured by the state initially, much like many other sporting icons of China. China is a very good example of a state that has used sports as its soft power manoeuvre and produced not only national but international icons idolized and adored by people across the globe, and big and small economies of the world have much to learn from it.

Namrata Hasija
Research Officer
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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