China is gearing up to host the Asian Games in Hangzhou, with the event opening on Saturday. While the quadrennial games were delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are now set to be China's largest sporting event in over a decade, featuring over 12,000 athletes from 45 nations participating in 40 sports.
Despite organizers expressing confidence in the successful execution of the games and the meticulous preparations, enthusiasm within China has been subdued. Some locals question the cost of the extravaganza, especially as the nation grapples with economic challenges and social concerns. China's economy has been facing difficulties in recent years, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is worth noting that President Xi Jinping, who has been known to favor significant sporting events, has a connection to Hangzhou, having worked there in the past. The games are expected to host a long list of leaders and VIPs, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in only the second visit by a Syrian president to China since 1956.
John Yan, founder of Score Sports and a prominent football commentator in China, noted that after three years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic and social atmosphere in China is subdued. Many people are more focused on their daily lives and livelihoods, and the Asian Games are not a top priority for them.
While organizers have not disclosed the exact spending for the games, the Hangzhou government revealed that it spent over 200bn yuan (approximately $30bn) in the five years leading up to 2020 on various aspects related to the event, including transport infrastructure, stadiums, accommodation, and other facilities.
Critics argue that this substantial investment could have been better used to address the needs of the common people, especially the youth who are facing challenges such as job scarcity and company closures.
Despite the subdued sentiment, the expected success of Chinese athletes at the games could uplift the public mood. It is common for the narrative to change once the sporting action begins, as noted by Beijing-based commentator Mark Dreyer.
The Asian Games have also witnessed less comprehensive state media coverage compared to previous events like the 2022 Olympics. Some Chinese social media users have indicated that awareness of the games is limited unless one is in Hangzhou, where promotional efforts are extensive.
Hangzhou, known for its picturesque landscapes and tea plantations, has undergone significant transformations in preparation for the games, similar to Beijing's preparations for the 2008 Olympics. The city has seen widespread construction, bright decorations, and even English lessons for pensioners.
While some residents are happy with the improved infrastructure and anticipate economic benefits, others view the games as a reflection of China's effort to open up to the world, particularly amid concerns of the nation adopting a more inward and national security-focused approach under President Xi's leadership.
Jules Boycoff, a scholar specializing in the politics of sport, suggests that for China's authorities, hosting the Asian Games is a way to assert their power domestically and present a positive image to a global audience, particularly during a time when Western skepticism towards China is prevalent.
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