With the world paralysed by the ongoing pandemic, piling-up geopolitical tensions, and irreconcilable disputes over human rights positions, controversy is an understatement when describing the journey leading up to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. However, in the eyes of billions of Chinese nationals, Beijing would come through the storm as nothing short of a champion.
According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer findings, the government of China holds the highest trust level amongst its citizens out of any country in the world, scoring 91% on the index in comparison to the 39% scored by the US government. And the Winter Games is to Beijing another medal in the trust-building competition.
Many skeptics find it hard to explain why popular support for Beijing has continued to soar in recent years. However, if we examine its gameplay strategy for the Olympics under the lens of four key parameters that build trust, anyone can understand how the Chinese government continues to score big with its citizens.
The four dimensions—ability, integrity, dependability and purpose—are perennially studied by Edelman. Agree with Beijing or not, there are lessons to be learned for any institution seeking to navigate the massive and complex puzzle that is the world’s fastest-growing market.
Ability: The perception of delivery
In an interview, the Chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for Beijing 2022, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, said that the organisation had considered China's hosting capacity. And in the end, the preparations for the Games were not just fully met, but exceeded expectations.
This, coupled with the 2008 Summer Olympics, makes Beijing the first city in the world to host both forms of the Games. For Chinese nationals, this is seen as a reflection of their country’s infrastructural ability, its culture, and national pride.
Integrity: Having steadfast conviction in what you stand for
One narrative that the Chinese government has offered its people is that it will provide an alternative route to democracy—a path that leads to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and spirit. For a nation that is immensely proud of its thousands of years of rich history and culture, yet at the same time bears deep wounds of colonisation and various invasions in recent centuries, this narrative is strongly appealing. This is further affirmed by an unprecedented development in the form of an increasing number of Chinese diaspora competing for team China this year.
For decades, the US has been heralded as a place for elites from other nations to seek out a ‘better life’. This year, Gold medalist Eileen Gu, who was born in California and represented the US before switching to represent China, became a national darling with her athletic excellence, confident smile and flawless Mandarin. She was joined by Jieruimi Shimisi, Madison Woo, Zhu Yi and Rebekah Kolstad—all American-born athletes who chose to compete for Team China. In the wake of the ever-intense US-China relations, their choice to bear the Chinese flag was seen as a powerful statement that the Chinese shores could indeed be a legitimate alternative to a better life.
Dependability: The expectation to keep promises
Beijing promised its nationals a Covid-free event, and it has more-or-less delivered one, perhaps far better than any other nation could. For over two years, the daily lives of Chinese nationals have been impacted by the strict precautions taken by the government’s ‘zero-Covid’ approach. People have dealt with the inconveniences of lockdowns, taken countless nucleic acid tests, and sacrificed personal privileges for the prevention of widespread infection. The last thing they want, after months of sacrifices, was for the Games to turn into an open invitation to the virus.
After two years of living with Covid, Beijing spared no efforts to keep the pandemic at bay, and that has been extended to its approach in executing the Olympics. The ambitious measures of creating a ‘closed loop’ for participants may hold the record for the most complicated logistical requirements in Olympics history. Overall, trust scores have surged when it comes to Chinese nationals regarding its government as dependable in keeping its people safe.
Purpose: The sentiment of positively impacting society
I believe that Western media casually overlooked Beijing’s commitment to host a Green Olympics, which is in line with the country’s set goals of tackling climate change and becoming a carbon neutral society by 2060. These efforts ranged from the tiniest-ever Olympic flame, environment-friendly snowmaking, and the use of 100% renewable energy-sourced electricity.
With skyrocketing industrialisation and rapid economic growth of recent decades, the Chinese people have long suffered from polluted air and water. Understanding these concerns has resulted in new policy and environmental commitments to become carbon neutral by 2060, which has led to a further surge in approval ratings by Chinese nationals.
Whether you agree with Beijing’s policies or not, there are clear guidelines and lessons on how an institution can establish trust within the China market. Learning to read the cultural context of this audience, and strategically focusing the narrative around the four dimensions mentioned above, one can see why the Winter Olympics was a success in the eyes of Chinese nationals.
Nelson Ren is COO of Edelman China.