China’s Asian Games ambitions: To top the medal pile, to show it has bounced back from the pandemic and to flex its economic and geopolitical muscle

ON A damp, overcast day, the ‘Big Lotus’, or the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, blooms bright.

Its shape inspired by ancient silk texture and its weaving patterns, the 81,000-seater coliseum stands tall, despite being surrounded by Hangzhou’s gleaming skyscrapers, which are submerged in the low, dense clouds that also cover the picturesque Xihu, or West Lake.

Alone or in groups, the local residents converge at the hallowed water’s edge; some elegantly performing Tai Chi, a few others sitting calmly with a fishing rod in one hand, waiting patiently for their catch.

Nothing about the place screams ‘Asian Games’. But that’s not to suggest a lack of buzz. If anything, it’s the calm confidence of a nation that’s a veteran of hosting big-ticket events.

When the postponed Asiad begins on Saturday in this mountain city in the east of China, it will be the fourth time that the country will be hosting an event of this scale in the last decade-and-a-half.

There is no suspense on how this will end. After 15 days of competition, China will top the medal tally, its gold count will likely be twice that of the country that finishes second. And India, with its biggest-ever contingent comprising over 650 athletes, will feature prominently in the top five.

Yet, the political and cultural significance of the Games isn’t lost.

Marcus Chu, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, says China is “using the event to showcase that it is still competitive”. “Competitive” not on the sports field, but in an economic and geopolitical sense.

If the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was China’s coming-out party, the Hangzhou Asiad is seen as a platform to showcase the resumption of normal service post-Covid, and to reinforce that “China is still a very successful economy”, according to Chu.

The pandemic and the consequent zero-Covid policy inflicted unprecedented collateral damage, with China forced to concede the hosting rights of the Asian Football Championship to Qatar and also postpone the Asian Games in Hangzhou, a city with close ties to its President Xi Jinping.

“Hangzhou started to have the idea of hosting this event in 2013,” Chu says. “That is a very important year for Chinese politics because Xi Jinping officially became the most important and powerful President of China. And Hangzhou is important for Xi Jinping because he chaired the Zhejiang Provincial Communist Party Affairs from 2002 to 2007,” says Chu.

“Also, we must not forget that most of the Asian countries are also members of Xi Jinping’s One Belt-One Road Initiative,” says Chu, who has authored books on China’s sporting, political and economic confluence. “Europeans, Africans… they don’t pay attention to the Asian Games. So they (authorities) can use the Asian Games to project that ‘China is not as bad as the international media is reporting’,” he adds.

Glance in any direction and the messaging is apparent. These are Asian Games of Olympic grandeur and scale — or even bigger. Giant hoardings around downtown promise residents an “Asian Games for a better city”, and foreign visitors are being left awestruck by the use of technology — from artificial intelligence to robots that serve food, deliver items and give directions.

Curiously, the in-your-face display of technology blends seamlessly with the century-old cultural aspects of the city, replete with pagodas and temples which are straddled on either side of the lake that flows through the centre.

The residents seek refuge in the words of Marco Polo. Passing through Hangzhou in the 13th Century, the Venetian explorer described the city, where old meets new at every corner, as a “City of Heaven”.

Emperors and dynasties made it their capital for centuries, and poets, who drew inspiration from the shimmering lake, were held in high prestige.

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These words and stories, in one form or another, are oft-repeated here. “Hangzhou doesn’t host many important sports meetings. Normally, these events go to Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing,” says Fan Hong, the executive dean of the Institute of Olympic Studies and Research of Shanghai University of Sport. “Hangzhou is not a commercial or industrial city. It’s very much a cultural city. The Chinese say that if there’s a beautiful heaven on Earth, then it is Hangzhou.”

Many Chinese undertake a “pilgrimage” to Hangzhou each year, she says, to worship at the temples, walk around the Xihu, and sip the renowned Dragon Well tea that grows in the mountains here.

The crowds are expected to gather here over the next couple of weeks too, packing the ‘Big Lotus’, cheering for the host nation athletes, and driving home the picture of normalcy after the years of pandemic-induced hardship.

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