Tea Leaf Nation

A Smile for Sochi

A Smile for Sochi

Ready or not, Putingrad (aka Sochi) is now on prime time. The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics will take place in the subtropical Russian resort town on Feb. 7. In the Twittersphere, Western journalists and visitors have assailed Sochi’s ill-preparedness — from uncovered manholes, to yellow tap water, to broken doorknobs in just-built hotels — with viral photos and snarky comments.

But all is rosy on the Eastern front in Russia’s battle for a better public image, as Chinese media seems content with reporting on the sunny side of Sochi. A Feb. 3 English-language article in Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily breezily stated that Sochi is "inspiring Chinese tourists to look for sporting fun." A photographer from state-owned Chinese news agency Xinhua filed a series of photos taken on Feb. 5 showing Sochi’s expansive seaside vistas, palm tree-lined paths, and clean city streets. In a Feb. 7 article carried by multiple state-run outlets, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Sochi to attend the opening ceremony, declared its coinciding with Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations a "double happiness."

Russian President Vladimir Putin must appreciate such friendliness from his giant southern neighbor and generous oil and gas customer. Xi’s presence in Sochi is probably a better present to Putin than the birthday cake Xi gave him at the APEC meeting in October 2013, since the West’s most powerful leaders, including Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel, decided to boycott the Sochi Winter Games.

Beyond geopolitical considerations, the Chinese are likely more sympathetic to the story that Putin is trying to tell in Sochi: that of a proud, resilient people trying to reclaim their country’s past glory by splurging on a vanity project that holds the world’s attention for some two weeks. (See, for examples, the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.) And perceived prejudice by foreign journalists covering these events is also a familiar theme to the Chinese; Xinhua complained in an August 2012 op-ed that Western journalists showed "arrogance and prejudice" when they questioned whether some Chinese athletes at the London Games had been doping. With the Sochi Olympics, one Chinese Weibo user wondered aloud how anyone can expect Western journalist to "really give high praise" to Russia, "a country not allied with theirs."

And Chinese visitors are less likely to notice some of the developing-country quirks that certain Westerners find Twitter-worthy. It’s hard to imagine a Chinese journalist being shocked, as New Jersey native and Yahoo! blogger Greg Wyshynski apparently was, at a Sochi bathroom sign beseeching users not to flush toilet paper down the toilet — such signs are commonplace in China. In fact, rushed (and occasionally botched) construction jobs are everywhere in China’s fast-growing cities, and travelers know how to temper expectations. Many Chinese are just happy to be in Sochi: One user on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo posted photos of a canteen tent in Sochi’s Olympic Village where a smiling old lady dressed in a red cap and apron served him lamb kebabs.

If anything, the Sochi Olympics might make China look better. Sochi’s $51 billion price tag dwarfs the $40 billion Chinese authorities spent to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As speculation swirls around how much of the astronomical budget lavished on this marginal spa town now line the pockets of corrupt Russian officials, the Beijing Summer Games may look like a smart bargain in comparison: 75 percent of that budget was used on long-term infrastructure projects like subways and roads that still benefit the metropolis of 20 million.

That doesn’t mean Chinese people are totally without complaints. For example, it is certainly not customary in China to have a curtain-free bathroom window, as Chinese sports official Li Yang discovered in Sochi, to his dismay. Worried that the Czech team in the next building could see into his bathroom, Li claims that he spoke to the organizing committee, only to be told that "we Russians are used to not having window curtains in bathrooms." Neither do Chinese currently wish upon themselves another round of games. Beijing and its satellite city, Zhangjiakou, applied to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, but the reaction from China’s social media to that bid was a collective groan.

But for now, Chinese visitors to Sochi seem to be having a fine time of it. They feel themselves on friendlier turf than their American counterparts, and they’re used to many of the glitches they encounter. Bigger snafus, meanwhile, are at least someone else’s headache. Double happiness indeed.