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A Tale of Two Olympics: Changed China in a Changed World

It has become something of a cliché to call the 2008 Beijing Olympics China’s global “coming out” moment.  After a failed bid to host the 2000 games (eventually held in Sydney), Beijing embraced the 2008 Olympics as an opportunity to show the world that the nation was peacefully reforming, modernizing, and opening up.  Despite contemporary concerns about pollution, logistics, costs, and human rights, the games were a tremendous success for the host nation on nearly every level.  In retrospect, the 2008 Olympics are widely considered to have been a soft power triumph.

Nations traditionally anticipate public relations benefits to hosting the Olympics.  A successful games can signal resilience and recovery in a war-torn city, as was the case with Antwerp in 1920 and London in 1948.  It can herald postwar economic and social revival, as in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964.  Or it can announce the arrival of an erstwhile developing nation to the table of regional powers, e.g., Seoul in 1988 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The 2008 games not only heralded China’s arrival onto the world stage, but as the sinologist Kevin Caffrey has noted, “The Beijing performance was [also] a harbinger of wider regional and international ambitions – a message of intent that pointed to a larger Chinese plan for re-engagement with the world to a degree not seen since the early Ming dynasty.”  Seeing America and its partners mired in the War on Terror and the financial crisis, China’s leaders embarked on a far more opportunistic and assertive post-Olympics path toward global influence.

China in 2022

Consequently, the China that is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics is a very different place.  This is no longer “rising China” – a mid-level developing state hoping someday to join the ranks of world powers – it is, rather, “risen China,” a powerful peer competitor with formidable ambitions.  China today is more than three times richer than it was 14 years ago, with a parallel rise in GDP per capita, and it is much more confident.  It is the world’s largest manufacturing nation, and it boasts the largest economy in PPP terms.  The people of China have experienced a substantial rise in living standards alongside an unprecedented public investment in infrastructure, education, and healthcare.  Anyone over the age of thirty has experienced a transportation revolution from bicycles to cars to a vast network of high-speed rail lines and urban subways.  Ordinary citizens are so tech-obsessed that cell phone usage is virtually universal and the nation’s exchange economy is now effectively cashless.

But with China’s growing confidence, its messaging to the world has also grown more nationalistic.  After many years of “hiding its strength” and “biding its time” (in the words of visionary leader Deng Xiaoping), China in the Xi Jinping era has grown far more assertive in pursuit of its interests on all fronts, from trade and investment to technology, regional security, and global governance.  It has expanded annual military spending more than threefold, and its diplomats now revel in public confrontation.  China has not only benefited from working within the existing world order, but it has also boldly created institutions of its own based on a Chinese vision of rules and norms.

This assertiveness has alarmed many in the capitals of the West.  The 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by the optimistic discourse of globalization and a widespread faith in the transformative nature of China’s integration into the world order.  By contrast, today’s discursive framework is rife with pessimism about China’s intentions and America’s retreat from world leadership.  Beijing has assailed Washington’s “Cold War mentality” and its anti-China “containment” policy, while Western governments have declared China a systemic rival whose audacity necessitates “whole-of-government” responses.

The “global integration” zeitgeist of 2008 has given way to more fractious, nationalistic, and restrained international environment.  China stands as one of the world’s great financiers, and its capital is welcomed in many corners of the developing world, but it is also boldly pressing its interests in the East Asia region and strengthening its claims to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the entire South China Sea – all the while insisting that it is simply exercising its rights over its sovereign territory.  At home, ordinary citizens have experienced a narrowing of civil society space and tighter regulations on business.

The Winter Games

While in normal times the Olympics offer a tremendous opportunity for national self-promotion and for visitors to experience the host nation firsthand, the 2022 winter games are unlikely to be remembered as an Olympics that “humanized” the host nation’s image.  Nobody doubts that the People’s Republic knows how to pull off a big show.  After all, countless foreign visitors in 2008 remarked on Beijing’s welcoming spirit and modern appearance.  But in 2022 neither foreigners nor ordinary Chinese citizens can attend events.

The COVID pandemic has put planners into a bind.  On the one hand, China’s leaders have every reason to tout their successful methods.  While other governments have been unable to contain the virus, China’s comprehensive lockdown in 2020 effectively isolated the disease and quickly returned the nation to near-normalcy.  On the other hand, their zero-tolerance policy requires an overwhelming response to even modest outbreaks, as when they recently locked down 13 million people in the city of Xi’an.  At these Olympics, they are assiduously separating athletes from the public and maintaining a strict testing regime that has already disrupted some athletes’ training routines.

Geopolitical differences further strain these games.  A small bloc of Western and Pacific nations with a reputation for challenging Beijing – including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Japan – have not sent official representatives.  This political statement may be a far cry from the 1980 and 1984 games in Moscow and Los Angeles, when dozens of nations refused even to send athletes due to Cold War tensions, but it is still a minor irritant for China’s leaders.  As a telling sign of the times, each side has spun it as a propaganda victory.  In the words of state-run news outlet Xinhua, “The so-called US ‘diplomatic boycott’ . . . has turned out to be nothing but a flop.”

Far more worrisome from Beijing’s standpoint is the possibility of any public incidents, especially criticism of the nation’s human rights record.  Chinese officials have intimated that visiting athletes must follow China’s public speech laws, though if anyone goes rogue it will create a dilemma.  Will they really punish a guest athlete who speaks out?  Doing so would likely cause both a bilateral diplomatic row and an international public relations disaster.  We won’t know unless it happens.  Among the others who also hope to avoid such incidents are the IOC (which prohibited all forms of political expression before last year’s Tokyo games), the corporate sponsors (many of which have deep business ties to China), and the licensed broadcasters.

There is still plenty of room for success.  If organizers can stave off virus outbreaks, manage the logistical challenges, and limit embarrassing incidents, then they can leave it to the sporting events themselves to provide enough drama and inspiring story lines for the international viewing public.  These Olympics may not alter China’s system or alleviate Sino-Western tensions in the short term, but someday we may look back at these games as another of China’s many modern turning points.  Whether they will have signaled a return to openness and international engagement or a darker era of even deeper conflict remains to be seen.