China Brief

Why Is China Sabotaging Its Own Athletes?

A new set of qualifications focused on strength rather than skill could actually harm Beijing’s efforts at the next Olympics.

Chaopan Lin of China competes in the men's horizontal bar final during day 10 of the 49th FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 13, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Chaopan Lin of China competes in the men's horizontal bar final during day 10 of the 49th FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 13, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The highlights this week: Beijing introduces a new set of athletic qualifications that could eliminate half of national-level competitors, Chinese students successfully protest against university campus lockdowns, and new research reveals the extent of forced labor in Xinjiang.

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 Arbitrary Rules Frustrate Chinese Athletes

China is sabotaging its own Olympics efforts, imposing arbitrary physical tests on athletes in qualifying events for international competitions. In the national swimming championships, held through Oct. 2 in Shandong, many top competitors have already been eliminated—for reasons that have nothing to do with their swimming ability.

The swimmers are the latest victims of a bizarre new set of rules for qualification imposed in February that could eliminate as many as half of all athletes based on a set of arbitrary physical challenges that have nothing to do with their individual sports, such as pushups, endurance running, and bench presses. Several of China’s best skiers were blocked from traveling to Norway this summer for training due to failing the tests, while champion snowboarders were kicked off the team for underperforming at long-distance running.

One of the measures involved in the new rules is body mass index (BMI), a dubious but commonly used measure of body composition that is especially unreliable for athletes. The BMI standards set by authorities are unhealthy: Only men with a BMI of 18 or less achieve a perfect score under the new rules, which for most people is dangerously underweight. Female standards are set slightly higher, at a BMI of 20.

In judo, Chinese athletes have adopted forced diets to lose weight and make their BMI targets, dropping some of them into lower weight classes. The standards are even being applied to sports that have no physical component at all, such as chess.

Why the new rules? China’s sports system is known for its brutal treatment of competitors. But traditionally it has focused on channeling young athletes into medal-rich sports such as Olympic shooting. The result: Beijing hasn’t built up a team sports culture, but it has a rich haul of Olympic gold. The new tests, however, seem like a product of a familiar preoccupation in business and government with arbitrary rankings as a sign of success.

The preoccupation is worsened by the lack of professional sports science in China. Rather than working directly with teams, sports scientists hold quasi-academic jobs and, when given an official role, tend toward arbitrary pseudoscience.

National strength. The official announcement about the new qualification rules reveals the Chinese leadership’s long-standing obsession with physical strength as a sign of national greatness. That dates back to the 1930s, but it manifests today as part of the belief in a so-called boys’ crisis—that young Chinese men are too effeminate, soft, and lazy. Exercise is part of reasserting supposedly traditional gender roles.

The focus on overall strength rather than particular skill may end up hampering China at both the delayed 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The outcry against the ridiculous new system could lead to its abandonment, but as with much else in Xi Jinping’s China, it could also lead officials to double down out of stubbornness.


What We’re Following

Student unrest. In a rare victory for protesters in China, students across the country secured a relaxation of hard lockdown conditions on university campuses. Despite China’s successes against COVID-19, tight restrictions continued after the summer holidays, effectively locking students on campus. The model follows that used after SARS, when universities controlled entry and exit to campuses even a year after the epidemic ended.

Chinese university campuses are relatively self-contained, with their own supermarkets and restaurants, but student frustrations have exploded into protest, picking up substantial online comment. One of the major complaints was price gouging, with on-campus shops taking advantage of the lack of other options to charge students extra for essential goods.

Forced labor in Xinjiang. Major new research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) shows the extent of the mass destruction of religious and cultural sites across Xinjiang—more than two-thirds of all mosques have been damaged or destroyed—and the growth of prison sites. It also reveals the effective sale of coerced Uighur labor in the rest of China.

Western firms are facing growing questions about their supply chains in China, too, as the use of forced labor from detained Uighur Muslims grows. Meanwhile, China’s counterattacks on researchers and journalists working on Xinjiang have also increased as condemnation of the atrocities spreads: Individual researchers at ASPI and elsewhere have faced online threats.

The vaccine race. Chinese firms are conducting testing of experimental COVID-19 vaccines in numerous countries, possibly giving the country an edge in the frantic race to be the first to provide immunization. China has promised early access to any successful vaccine to countries that allow clinical trials, including Pakistan, Mexico, Egypt, and Indonesia. The official pressure for success, however, has raised concerns about shortcuts and experimental standards. Even China’s conventional vaccine production has seen numerous scandals, including a mass public health crisis in 2018.


Tech and Business

Party presence. An aggressive new push to increase the already considerable role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in private business has received surprisingly little attention. Xi has called on private business to “unite around the party,” a familiar refrain throughout China. The very prevalence of such party-first messaging makes it unclear whether this will mean substantial changes to how private businesses operate—they are already required to set up CCP cells once they reach a certain size—or whether it’s simply a warning.

TikTok, WeChat get judicial reprieve. The U.S. attempt to ban or force the sale of popular Chinese-run social media apps has hit an obstacle after U.S. courts issued two separate injunctions against it, arguing the Trump administration had failed to show sufficient threat to override the companies’ First Amendment rights. The U.S. government argues that the national security threat is critical. But its own handling of the TikTok-Oracle deal, which would effectively leave control in the hands of the app’s Chinese parent, ByteDance—undermines its case.

The recent revelation that TikTok stores a copy of all U.S. data on Singaporean servers run by Alibaba, however, does strengthen fears about data security.

Recovery boosts RMB. China’s pandemic success and relative economic stability this year have produced a record quarter for the yuan. Despite spiraling U.S.-Chinese relations, Washington has held off from any further tariffs against China, while the lack of travel overseas and reduction in emigration has kept money in the country.


What We’re Reading

Eileen Chang’s short stories

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), one of China’s most brilliant modern authors. Chang is most famous in the West for her novella Lust, Caution—a haunting tale of love, war, and assassination in wartime Shanghai adapted to film by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee. But her greatest achievements may be her short stories, some as brief and powerful as parables.

Read “Sealed Off” or the beautiful wisp of a story “Love,” translated by Qiaomei Tang.


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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