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Beijing’s Olympic Moments, 2008 And 2022: How China And Meaning Of Games Have, And Have Not, Changed – Analysis

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By Jacques deLisle*

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(FPRI) — For China and for the world engaging with China, much has changed between the 2008 Summer Games and the 2022 Winter Olympics that the Chinese capital is hosting thirteen and a half years later.  Between the two Olympiads, China has become more secure in its global clout, but also more alienating, and alienated, abroad.  The quest for international acceptance that characterized the 2008 Games no longer drives the regime in Beijing, but foreign criticisms—once again spotlighted on the 2022 Olympic stage—still irk Beijing and reflect persisting limits to China’s remarkable rise.

Faster, Higher, Stronger…”: China on a Global Stage

Beijing’s first Olympics symbolized China’s ascension as a prosperous modern country and a great power.  The 2008 Games debuted China’s new stature, wealth, and capacity to accomplish the daunting task of putting on an especially ambitious and lavish Olympics.  The Games featured newly constructed buildings that would become icons, including the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the venue for the blockbuster opening ceremony and track and field events, and the Water Cube, the site of the swimming competitions.  Those were just the two most famous among a host of impressive new structures and transportation infrastructure that accelerated the city’s breakneck physical transformation—encapsulated in the host Olympic Committee’s aspirational catchphrase “New Beijing, Great Olympics.”  Relying on its formidable tools of authoritarian rule, Beijing dispossessed and displaced over one million residents to build the vast, sparkling sites, reduced major sources of Beijing’s notorious air pollution, and thwarted protests and other potentially embarrassing disruptions.  Benefiting from homecourt advantage—and China’s long-growing prowess in many of the medal-rich sports of the Summer Games—Chinese Olympians’ first-place haul of gold medals (and second-place finish in the overall medal count) recapitulated—within the Games—the theme of China’s ascent.

The 2008 Olympics thus brought—as Beijing’s bid for the Games had sought—a high-profile affirmation of the host regime’s success in achieving the goal of a “rich and strong country” that had been a defining purpose for Chinese nationalist leaders dating back to China’s humiliating nineteenth-century encounter with the West, through the early years of the People’s Republic under Mao, and into the first decades of the Reform Era.  The 2008 Games prompted comparisons to the Seoul Games of 1988, held after Korea surpassed the upper-middle income country threshold that China would reach within four years after the Games, and which had already been surpassed by Beijing and other coastal urban areas in China’s regionally highly unequal economy.  Beijing’s first Olympics also echoed the Tokyo Games of 1964, which heralded Japan’s rapid recovery from wartime devastation, its emergence as a leading industrial economy, and its successful bid to join the OECD.

The analogies seemed apt, and perhaps understated.  By 2008, the size of China’s economy, its hard power, and its importance in the international order surpassed late-1980s Korea and mid-1960s Japan.  The notion of a U.S-China “G2” was already circulating and, within months after the Games, gained widespread currency in U.S. and other policy intellectual circles (even as it was greeted with skepticism and wariness in China).  The Global Financial Crisis, which would lead to the China-inclusive G20 eclipsing the previously dominant—and Western-dominated—G7 as a principal multilateral mechanism in the global economy, was underway; the crisis-accelerating collapse of Lehman Brothers would come to pass just a few weeks after the Beijing Games.

The 2022 Olympics are a much less valuable prize for China.  To some extent, this reflects attributes of the Games themselves.  The Winter Olympics have always been the Summer Games’ disfavored sibling—a status underscored by the Winter Games being moved off-cycle when the International Olympic Committee changed the practice of holding both events in the same year.  The appeal of hosting an Olympiad has waned during the past decade-plus of accumulating IOC corruption scandals, mounting criticism—partly fueled by the 2008 Beijing Games—of the IOC’s indifference to potential host states’ authoritarian politics and poor human rights records, and the ever-escalating price-tag of holding the Games.  Tellingly, while China beat out Paris, Toronto, Osaka, and Istanbul for the 2008 Games, the only other bidder, in the end, for the 2022 Games was Kazakhstan—a potential host with politics no less off-putting than China’s and far less certain ability to pull off a successful Olympics. 

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The COVID-19 pandemic assured a still-more-diminished Games, conducted under greater restrictions than the delayed and spectator-sparse 2020 Tokyo Summer Games—partly due to China’s “zero tolerance” pandemic containment policy choices.  The usually vast contingent of foreign guests—tourists, officials, teams, and teams’ entourages—will be greatly reduced, with a tiny (by Olympics standards) contingent of only thousands allowed to enter the country.  The athletes, officials, media, and others who travel for the Games (as well as local volunteers) will be walled off—literally as well as figuratively—from the host city and its citizens.  The U.S. television coverage will occur remotely, from Connecticut.

To be sure, China invested significant material and political resources in the 2022 Games.  A large-scale, multi-year drive has been underway to develop a cohort of Chinese athletes to excel and compete for medals in winter sports.  China again undertook massive construction projects to prepare for the Games, most notably by building skiing venues in arid and not very attractive areas on the host city’s periphery.  Official statements have repeatedly linked the 2022 Winter Games to a core Xi Jinping-era goal of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” 

But Chinese athletes are unlikely to bring national glory on the scale that their counterparts did in 2008 (and in more recent Summer Games).  Especially against the backdrop of present-day Beijing (and a good many other Chinese cities), the 2022 Olympics-related projects were far less transformative and symbolically weighty than their 2008 antecedents.  The setting for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games, for example, is the repurposed Bird’s Nest.   The former Water Cube, redubbed  the “Ice Cube,” will host the curling competition. 

As such features suggest, and despite ample attention from Chinese and foreign media and officials, a much more powerful and influential China cares less—and has much less reason to care—about the 2022 Winter Games than it did about the 2008 Summer Olympics.  The arriviste China of the first Beijing Games has now, by almost every measure, arrived.  China’s GDP is on track to eclipse the U.S.’s, and already has done so by purchasing power parity (PPP) measures.  China is now the top trading partner for many countries around the world, and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative dwarfs other state-led projects for overseas infrastructure investment.  China is the sole near-peer power of the United States, the principal concern of Washington defense planners, the U.S.’s principal geostrategic rival (in the characterizations of both the Trump and Biden administrations), and the object of Washington’s reinvigorated efforts at shoring up security alliances and partnerships to compensate for the U.S.’s declining ability unilaterally to check China’s seemingly expanding ambitions.  There are, to be sure, potentially serious cracks in the foundations of China’s economic and hard power strengths, but the contrasts to China circa 2008—and the assessments of China in the U.S. and the wider, increasingly wary, world—are profound.

“…Together”?: China and International Norms

The Olympics, and their significance for China and China’s relations with the world, are about more than reflecting or ratifying the host country’s economic and strategic stature.  Staging the Olympics is often—and is for China—a normative pursuit.  The Beijing Summer Games provided an occasion for China to highlight its cultural heft and soft power.  The opening ceremony featured a highly memorable choreographed cast of many thousands celebrating the millennial glories of Chinese civilization.  Internationally prominent Chinese creative figures, including film director Zhang Yimou and visual artist Ai Weiwei, respectively, played prominent roles in designing the opening ceremony and the venue that hosted the spectacle. 

Viewers of NBC’s coverage witnessed the effusive commentary of Joshua Cooper Ramo, author of The Beijing Consensus, a then-widely-discussed, if analytically and empirically thin tract, which credited China with devising a distinctive new model of successful economic development based on innovation, sustainability and equality, and national self-determination (which meant, among other things, rejecting reliance on Washington and the principles of the neoliberal Washington Consensus).  Policy intellectuals and scholars in the U.S. and in China were engaged in a still-incipient discussion of a “China Model” that combined rapid economic growth with stable but illiberal politics and that partly paralleled and partly departed from the East Asian Model pioneered by Japan and emulated by Korea, Taiwan, and others.  In the widely noted 2007 book Charm Offensive, Joshua Kurlantzick argued that China’s soft power was “transforming the world.”

Notwithstanding these interpretations of growing Chinese influence, the principal values-related meaning of the Games was more modest and receptive.  Beijing’s winning bid in 2001 for the 2008 Summer Olympics heralded partial recovery from the international opprobrium in response to the regime’s brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests and which, four years later, fatally undermined Beijing’s candidacy for the 2000 Summer Games.  In this respect, the 2008 Beijing Games echoed the message of international political rehabilitation and reacceptance sent by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1960 Rome Games—neither of which China attended.

In 2008, China signaled openness toward then-prevailing international norms.  Albeit within the limited confines of the Olympics, Beijing pledged new space for press freedoms.  More broadly, the regime promised progress on human rights and environmental protection.  Principal venues and ceremonies reflected the creative input of Chinese and foreigners, in some cases working jointly.  The mascots for the Games quite literally echoed a message that China welcomed the world: five cuddly panda-like “Fuwa” in Olympic-themed colors named Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, Nini—a reference to “Beijing Huanying Ni” or “Beijing Welcomes You.”  (According to the official description, they also wished everyone good luck.)

In these and other ways, the Games evoked the broad and transformational trends of the preceding three decades of China’s era of “Reform and Opening to the Outside World.”  A new wave of market-oriented reform and international economic openness began with Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour to southern China.  China’s engagement with the global economy and its rules culminated in China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2000, less than a year before Beijing was named as host city for the 2008 Games.  In the early 1990s, China officially accepted the principle of universal human rights—a signal moment in its long and fitful march toward engaging with the norms and institutions of the international human rights regime.  Although modest, uneven, and often honored in the breach, reforms introduced slightly more liberal and democratic elements in politics, for example through the enactment of a law allowing citizens to sue the state (in 1989), the implementation of—sometimes-contested—elections at the most local levels (beginning in the 1980s and 1990s), and the adoption of a constitutional amendment recognizing human rights (in 2004).

For the 2022 Games, winter is coming on the “values” front.  The five welcoming pandas of the 2008 Games have been succeeded by a single, apparently unironically ice-encased, panda named Bing Dwen Dwen—the surname “Ice” followed by an unorthodox Romanization of characters that the official website describes as meaning “robust and lively” and “representing children.”  (The icy shell also signals the technological muscle of China’s space program.)  Newly constructed facilities for the 2022 Games were designed by Chinese architects alone, without international collaborators.  Although hardly sparing in his comments on China’s political system and human rights record during the 2008 Games, Bird’s Nest co-creator Ai Weiwei—now in exile after years of persecution and abuse by Chinese authorities—offered significantly sharper condemnation of party rule, greater pessimism about prospects for positive change, and deeper skepticism about the Chinese regime’s concern with foreign criticism in the run-up to the 2022 Games.  Zhang Yimou, in a return engagement as ceremonies director, opined that a more subdued event was in order, given the COVID pandemic.  While the scandal that China fielded impermissibly young gymnasts cast something of a shadow in 2008, darker charges about abuse of athletes loom over Beijing’s Winter Games: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member, and visible face of the Beijing 2022 Olympics organization.  Compounding the controversy, Peng soon recanted her claim, after disappearing from public view, under what was widely understood to be great pressure from Chinese authorities. 

Many of the arrangements for the Games in Beijing entail dramatic displays of China’s authoritarianism, which has turned harder and more high-tech since 2008.  Overall, COVID-19 provides both compelling reasons (given the threat posed by the Omicron variant and the limited efficacy of China’s vaccines) and convenient pretext (building on China’s already-existing strict pandemic containment rules) for keeping the much-reduced contingent of competitors and others present for the Games tightly sealed within an Olympic bubble.   COVID-related restrictions and China’s potent surveillance state mean that press freedoms will be even more constrained then at the earlier Games.  Warnings were issued to foreign reporters to use burner cellphones and laptops to avoid Chinese state spyware, and to journalists and athletes to beware of perhaps-intentional security flaws in intrusive apps that they were required to install on their mobile devices.  Beijing officials pointedly warned Olympians, in the words of one journalistic summary, to “shut up and ski”—that is, to forego comment on human rights and other political issues that the hosts deem sensitive. 

The environment was an issue at the 2008 Games—a threat to the health and performance of competitors and to China’s image.   But environmental problems are still more disconcerting for the 2022 Olympics.  Although Beijing in recent years has worked to reduce its severe pollution, air quality remains an attention-grabbing issue in 2022.  Making the snow needed for skiing events in the arid countryside around the capital—including in a nature preserve—looked like a pointed act of environmental hubris, disturbingly echoing the Mao-era slogan “man must triumph over nature.”  The troubling, and amplifying, context for such concerns is China’s emergence as the top greenhouse gas emitter (as well as a major source of transborder pollution) amid a dire and accelerating climate crisis, which China has prominently pledged to help ameliorate.

Human rights issues loomed large for Beijing 2008, but they have grown far graver for China’s second Olympics.  Activists and human rights groups dubbed the Beijing Summer Games the “Genocide Olympics” because of China’s support, primarily at the UN, for the Sudanese regime that was committing atrocities in Darfur.  Closer to home, China’s harsh rule in Tibet, including the violent suppression of protests shortly before the 2008 Games, triggered condemnation abroad and prompted quickly quashed attempts to unfurl pro-Tibet banners in Beijing during the Games and otherwise turn the Olympic spotlight to the issue.  China also faced charges that 2008 Olympic merchandise was produced with child or sweatshop labor, and that the Games’ sparkling venues were the product of largescale, forced, and under-compensated relocation of city residents.  And the Games provided an exceptional opportunity to draw the world’s attention to China’s human rights performance more broadly.

Leading up to the 2022 Winter Games, Olympics-targeting criticisms and condemnations of China’s human rights behavior addressed additional and more serious abuses.  Along with ongoing abuses in Tibet, the two most prominent issues were: the forcible internment and so-called reeducation of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which two U.S. administrations have now condemned as “genocide” (and which included key elements of cultural genocide, such as suppression of language and religion); and the deterioration of political autonomy and civil liberties in Hong Kong, including forcible repression of anti-government protests and the imposition of an illiberal and draconian National Security Law adopted by the Chinese national legislature in Beijing.  Increasingly threatening rhetoric and actions toward what Beijing condemned as pro-independence moves by Taiwan evoked the prospect of violence targeting another  region—one with a strong human rights record and liberal-democratic governance—that Beijing considers within its sovereign domain.

Over the years between Beijing’s first and second Olympiads, reasons for concern about China’s human rights conditions more generally have increased markedly.  Under Xi Jinping, Chinese politics has become notably more authoritarian.  Dissidents, including human rights lawyers, have faced more severe constraints and crackdowns.  Restrictions on Internet and social media content and on civil society organizations, independent media, and much else have tightened.  The surveillance state has expanded through pervasive deployments of security cameras, facial recognition technology, and required and voluntary use of trackable mobile phone apps for many aspects of daily life.  The authorities have ready access to such weapons, both high tech and old school, in their versatile arsenal to assure that the Winter Games will take place without disruption (if not without evident repression).

Still more broadly, the Chinese regime’s trend toward convergence with existing international norms, which perhaps seemed possible in 2008, looks much less likely by 2022.  As the contrasting Olympic mascots appear to embody, the Games’ host state has become much less welcoming toward foreign or global values.  In the intervening years, Chinese official and orthodox positions have shifted decisively against ostensibly Western, and specifically liberal, human rights-related, influences.  High-level policy statements declared so-called universal values, Western notions of journalistic freedom, and liberal-democratic-style constitutionalism to be ill-suited to China.  The in-principle commitments to the universality of human rights has become overshadowed by a renewed emphasis on human rights relativism based on differences in culture, political system, or level of economic development, and a reaffirmation of national sovereignty and economic development as core human rights.  Xi-era rhetoric has redoubled and sharpened the regime’s longstanding insistence that China must remain autonomous and would follow its own distinctive path.  China’s souring relations with many of its neighbors, the United States, and much of the West, does not augur a return to receptivity to external ideas and ideals.

Primarily focusing on human rights issues, critics pressed for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, in some cases pointing out that China’s most troubling actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong post-dated the IOC’s awarding the Games to China.  Against the backdrop of growing talk about a possible “new Cold War” between the U.S. and China, such calls raised the prospect that the 2022 Beijing Olympics would resemble the 1980 Moscow Summer Games: the ostensibly communist host country’s principal international rival—the United States—and like-minded states might stay away, reinforcing the ideological overlay to an underlying geostrategic contest.  In the end, a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 offered a dilute alternative—a compromise that stopped well short of Moscow 1980 (or Los Angeles 1984).

To some observers, the 2022 Beijing Games suggest a darker precedent: the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  In part, drawing an analogy to Hitler’s Games was part of the broader effort to focus attention on human rights violations in China, all the more so given the growing characterization of the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide.  The possible parallels to Berlin are broader and more multifaceted.  For those worried about the global impact of China’s rise, Beijing 2022 resembles Berlin 1936, with an internationally aggressive and ideologically repugnant host regime using the Games to showcase its growing national strength and its political and social model to the world, while also endeavoring to present itself as nonthreatening.  The 2022 Olympics conceivably could appear (likely in retrospect) to be a turning point, or at least a focal point, in China’s shift to assertive promotion of a distinctive and, from a liberal perspective, antithetical model of politics and governance, of economy and society. 

Under Xi, and especially since the 19th Party Congress, China has shown greater interest in framing a Chinese Model that is suitable for emulation—or at least being taken as a source of inspiration—by other countries in the developing world, including states led by sympathetic regimes that Beijing increasingly supports with material and political resources.  But such features are far from developing into a Manichean struggle between China and the U.S. akin to that which characterized the Cold War (a conflict that defined several Olympics from 1960 through 1984) or the 20th century struggle between liberal democracy and fascism (which led to the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games).  Any Chinese model is not nearly so coherent or robust.  Internationally, the Chinese regime is not so aggressively hostile to broadly liberal status quo values.   And China remains deeply integrated with, and dependent on, its potential enemies.  Beijing also lacks significant allies, acolytes, or satellites.

Olympic Fool’s Gold?: Changing China

Still, the 2022 Winter Games may mark, or illuminate, a lesser but—for the U.S. and for liberal values—still troubling milepost in the decline of the outside world’s ability to influence China and the Chinese regime’s behavior, especially within the country.  China’s economic and political importance, and its ability to credibly signal threats of consequences or imperviousness to pressure, have deterred or defanged Olympics-focused challenges.  At the 2022 Beijing Games, there will be no general boycott and only a modest diplomatic one.  Despite pledges to take human rights issues seriously, the IOC has remained docile, resonating with Beijing’s calls not to politicize the Games, and lagging far behind the Women’s Tennis Association in addressing the treatment of Peng Shuai.  Despite calls from human rights activists and organizations, major corporations have stayed largely silent on China’s human rights conditions, echoed the host regime’s and the IOC’s calls to eschew “politicization,” and poured copious resources into official sponsorships.

More fundamentally, as close observers have noted, the 2022 Olympics, especially when compared to the first Beijing Games, are being conducted, and assessed, on the host regime’s own terms.   As an effort to sway potentially adversarial foreign audiences, Berlin 1936 was more a precedent for Beijing 2008 than for Beijing 2022.  Prominently associated with the 2008 Games (when he was vice president and a Politburo Standing Committee member), Xi Jinping—now the party’s and state’s top leader—has closely associated himself with the 2022 Games as well.  For Xi and the leadership, success is to be measured less by persuasive engagement with the outside world, and more by impressing upon a Chinese audience the regime’s strength and accomplishments, including in achieving Xi’s ambition of “national rejuvenation” and the “China dream.”

These seemingly unpromising conditions do not mean that China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, was correct when—in an interview that addressed the Winter Olympics—he dismissed expectations that the U.S. (or, implicitly, other foreigners) could change China as ill-founded and doomed to disappointment.  China’s impressive gains in hard power and economic leverage offer a degree of insulation from external pressure, but they have been accompanied by a collapse in China’s soft power and the emergence of collaborative efforts among other, mostly liberal-democratic states—reinforced by a sense of a values-based conflict—to counter China’s growing influence and suspicion-provoking agenda. 

The Olympics are one occasion when these points of friction come into sharper focus.  Responding to calls for the IOC to reconsider Beijing’s hosting the 2022 Games, China’s Foreign Ministry rejected “the so-called ‘increasing concerns over China’s human rights record’” and denounced attempts to link human rights issues to the Beijing Games as “against the Olympic Charter” and “jeopardiz[ing] the progress of the global human rights cause.”  Reacting to the prospect of a U.S.-led boycott, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned that such moves would “expose [the U.S.’s] sinister intention and further erode its moral authority,” and promised that boycotters would “pay the price.”  Official Chinese media alleged that the U.S. would try to sabotage the Games by “incit[ing]” athletes to perform poorly or to criticize China.  As such remarks show, the high-profile international criticism that a Beijing-hosted Olympics makes possible still draws the ire of Chinese officialdom and can offer a modest lifeline of solidarity to those in China who suffer the consequences of the regime’s condemned behavior or seek to change China from within.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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