Hangzhou Asian Games: Competition, Symbolism, and Heightened Security Measures

After being postponed for a year due to the 2022 COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown in nearby Shanghai, the 19th Asian Games are finally taking place in China’s eastern seaboard city of Hangzhou. For the Chinese government, the stakes for the Asian Games are particularly high, for they represent a key “charm offensive” as the country emerges from three long years of relative isolation under the zero-COVID regime. The two-week event, held from September 23 to October 8, features more than 481 events with 12,500 competitors from 45 nations and territories across Asia and the Middle East. Host nation China is leading in the standings, with 270 total medals and almost half (147) of the gold medals awarded thus far. 

For the first time in the Asian Games, esports have been included as competition events, with teams competing in multiplayer games such as Street Fighter V, League of Legends, and Arena of Valor Asian Games Version (also known as Honor of Kings). Despite a 2021 regulation limiting minors’ online gaming to only three hours per week and a recently mooted suggestion by Chinese cyberspace administrators to restrict minors to two hours a day on their smartphones, China has the world’s largest esports market, in terms of both revenue and fans. Some fans were disappointed to learn that Chinese video platforms had been directed to limit esports streaming to only the semifinal and final events. As reported by Bloomberg, “concerns around internet addiction were at least in part behind the directive.”

In March 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan’s visit to a Wuhan housing complex was greeted with cries from residents: “Everything is fake!” During important international conferences, sporting events, or visits from high-ranking Chinese officials, it is now common for local residents to be forbidden from opening, looking out, or even standing near their windows. In the past, teachers have sometimes been dragooned into window-guarding duty during official visits, a tedious assignment that is nonetheless described as “a political task of the utmost importance.”

Hangzhou’s heightened security during the Games has caused some inconvenience to local residents and losses for delivery services. CDT Chinese editors have archived social media photos of windows sealed for the duration of the Games, and a video about delivery-service losses due to packages that could not be delivered. Some online commenters have said that the restrictions remind them of pandemic lockdowns, when packages went undelivered, food deliveries were discarded, and delivery drivers and truckers found themselves stranded.

A user of the social media platform Xiaohongshu shared a screenshot of a closed curtain with a notice reading, “Do not open. Safeguarding the Hangzhou Asian Games is everyone’s responsibility. Order in effect until October 28, 2023.” [Chinese]

Another screenshot from Chinese social media shows a paper seal over a glass window. The seal reads, “Window sealed for the duration of the Asian Games.” [Chinese]

A video posted to Bilibili by user @小雪, who runs an online grocery delivery service, complains of the heavy losses incurred by his business due to packages that could not be delivered to Hangzhou and other areas of Zhejiang province during the Games:

Because of the recent Asian Games in Hangzhou, every day we’re having thirty or forty packages being returned. (gestures to a pile of packages) That’s how many get returned, every single day.

[…] For every package, the cost of the goods have to be paid, plus the delivery fee. […] Then we likely have to replace the outer packaging, too, which costs a few yuan.

But the most critical thing is fines by the delivery platform. For every returned order, we get fined 5 yuan.

[…] The Hangzhou Asian Games aren’t something we’re in charge of. But if packages can’t be delivered [because of heightened security during the Games], even though that’s beyond our control, we’re the ones who get fined. [Chinese]

This edition of the Asian Games has been marked by pageantry, expressions of international friendship, and examples of good sportsmanship, as well as some inevitable snafus, snubs, and rivalries. In the run-up to the Games, volunteers stationed every three meters along Hangzhou’s streets stood outside in the rain to rehearse for the opening ceremony, while signs touted the city as a “paradise on earth” and proclaimed this year’s Games motto “heart to heart.” The elaborate opening ceremony of the Games went off without a hitch, although some onlookers were dismayed and amused that the anticipated fireworks turned out to be virtual: citing environmental concerns, host city Hangzhou decided to eschew a traditional pyrotechnics display and opted instead for special effects, 3D animations, and a virtual torchbearer.

Prior to the start of the Games, the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily suffered an embarrassment when it was forced to censor a video it had produced to promote the upcoming Games, because the video contained two classical poems with politically awkward subtexts that the producers had apparently overlooked. (One of the poems, containing references to “June” and “four seasons” had been used by some activists to get around censorship of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.) A much bigger controversy over a June 4 reference erupted this week, after hurdlers Lin Yuwei and Wu Yanni, who had run the women’s 100-meter hurdle final in lanes six and four, shared a hug after the event. A photograph of the two women hugging showed the numbers pinned to their shorts, which in combination read “6/4,” in what some saw as a reference to the June 4 Tiananmen massacre. After state-media outlet Xinhua and state-broadcaster China Central Television News shared the photo widely, both outlets—perhaps belatedly alerted to the political symbolism of the number—abruptly deleted the photo and related content, and Weibo began censoring posts that shared the image.

A noticeable snub occurred on the third day of the games, when the North Korean men’s shooting team refused to share a podium with the victorious South Korean team, after narrowly missing out on a gold medal in that day’s shooting competition. Several days later, after winning a gold medal in the women’s 50-meter butterfly final, Chinese swimmer Zhang Yufei shared the podium and a tearful hug with Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee, who took the bronze medal in the same event. Ikee is an inspirational figure in the world of swimming: diagnosed with leukemia in February 2019, she underwent treatment and resumed competitive swimming a mere year later. Zhang and Ikee’s warm embrace, despite epitomizing what events such as the Asian Games are all about, met with some backlash from Chinese nationalists online. Some unfairly accused Zhang of being a traitor to her country, while others bafflingly implied that Ikee was partly to blame for the recent Fukushima wastewater discharge.

One “positive energy” story that generated a lot of attention was the tale of how volunteers were mobilized to search through the night for a mobile phone that had been lost by 12-year-old Hong Kong chess player Liu Tian-yi in the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre. Liu, who had turned off her phone and placed it in a paper bag, feared that it might have been thrown away accidentally. Volunteers reportedly searched through tens of thousands of bags of rubbish and eventually located the missing phone. Hong Kong Asian Games captain Kenneth Fok Kai-kong made a video to thank the volunteers for going above and beyond. Online reaction to the phone saga was mixed, with some commentators questioning whether the extraordinary search represented Asian Games “hospitality” or a form of “extraterritorial treatment” evoking the long-defunct policy that effectively exempted foreigners from Chinese jurisdiction. Some on social media noted that the “volunteers” were actually maintenance staff from the Olympic Sports Centre, and suggested that they may not have had the option to refuse spending all night digging through piles of garbage. In a now-deleted post to the WeChat public account “Basic Common Sense,” blogger Xiang Dongliang acknowledges that while Chinese culture places a high value on displaying hospitality to one’s guests, the propaganda value of the phone search hints at other motives on the part of the government and Games organizers:

If you muster extraordinary resources to help a guest solve an ordinary problem, then arrange for a group of reporters to take photos and videos, and then proudly post it on your official social media account … well then, it’s really hard for me to believe that your motivation is nothing more than simple “hospitality.” [Chinese]

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