The success of the Beijing Olympics was not certain as it is remembered today as an event where record-breaking athletic successes were achieved only through the spectacular grandeur and organization of the games.
China had never hosted the Olympics before, and in the run-up to the 2008 One World, One Dream, it called for a boycott of the country’s human rights records and concerns about Beijing’s infamous smog could harm athletes’ health and angry protests against Tibet along much of the Olympic torch relay.
At home, Chinese organizers and athletes have been under immense pressure to not only achieve athletic success, but also to create a monument to national pride, a soft-power showcase that would cement China’s place as an emerging global superpower.
The feeling that China is becoming a leader on the world stage was reinforced by another important development in 2008: the global financial crisis. When the economy was devastated after the economy in the west, China was largely unscathed – spending a record $ 43 billion on hosting a sporting event.
About 14 years after hosting the first Olympic Games, Beijing will be the first city to host both the summer and winter editions of the Games in February 2022.
While the Winter Games don’t quite have the prestige of summer competition, a successful Olympics next year could be just as valuable a soft-power win for China as it was in 2008 – especially if it’s the first unrestricted Games since the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited several major Olympic venues last month, was very aware of how the coronavirus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, has impacted China’s standing in the world, with Beijing being criticized for it hasn’t contained them. A successful Beijing 2022, with hundreds of thousands of vaccinated, mask-free spectators packing stadiums, could serve as the ultimate proof of concept for China’s authoritarian political system, and Xi continues to have tight control over it.
“The 2022 Winter Olympics could help (Beijing) change its image from a world factory to a world power.”Lee Jung-woo, University of Edinburgh
Lee Jung-woo, a sports diplomacy and international relations expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the 2008 Games “enabled China to demonstrate its emerging economic status. The 2022 Winter Olympics could help them transform their image from a world factory to a factory change world power. “
And an important lesson from 2008 for China, beyond the value of the Olympics for soft power, is that successful games can erase any memory of sharpness and hostility beforehand.
When the Olympic torch – the symbol of the Games – found its way from Greece to China in the spring of 2008, its route was full of supporters and demonstrators. The season was referred to by the organizers as a “Journey of Harmony” though. Protesters clashed with police and security in London and Paris, where demonstrators managed to force the torch to be extinguished and to displace its bearer. In San Francisco, officials shortened and changed the route to avoid angry crowds and canceled a public ceremony.
Kai Mueller, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet Germany (IKT), was involved in the protests. He said they came after months of lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national and international sports federations and sponsors of games to raise long-standing human rights concerns – particularly in light of Beijing’s crackdown on religious and political freedoms in China controlled Tibet.
The then IOC President Jacques Rogge responded at the time as a “crisis” and said that the torch relay was not “the joyful party we had wanted”. At the same time, he claimed the Games could have a positive impact and advance “China’s social agenda, including human rights,” comments that Beijing did not welcome.
But while they caused anger in Beijing and embarrassed the IOC, the protests failed to derail the Games. The organizers went out of their way to ensure that the Games were a public relations triumph. You have made compromises on issues such as freedom of the press and human rights and even promised to allow protests – in precisely defined areas – in the Chinese capital. Given the anger over the treatment of Tibetans but the direct allegation of Uyghur “genocide” in Xinjiang, China’s leaders may have a harder time surfing the wave of criticism this year than they did in 2008.
“The likelihood of an Olympic boycott in 2022 is increasing day by day,” said Natasha Kassam, an analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a former Australian diplomat in China.
“Public opinion of China around the world has deteriorated as the party’s dire realities become widely known. Public concerns about human rights violations in China in 2022 dwarfed outrage over the 2008 Games,” she said.
Thirteen years ago, the Olympic slogan “One World, One Dream” sounded like the kind of pablum that is typical of the Games everywhere. But now people may be much more cautious about what exactly this Chinese “dream” might look like if China leans further into its authoritarian style of government – and after Xi himself adopted that phrase as one of its key slogans.
In 2008, hosting the Games in Beijing was seen as a potential step towards further opening up and political reform in China. However, the opposite is true. While China is unlikely to even pay lip service to the idea of liberalization this time around, foreign governments will also be far more skeptical of possible skepticism after patting themselves on the back prior to 2008 just to be ashamed when few of the alleged concessions were made realized.
For its part, the IOC is not pretending that these games have a chance to influence China’s political philosophy.
“The Olympic Games are not about politics,” wrote Rogge’s successor Thomas Bach last year. “Neither the awarding of the games nor the participation is a political judgment with regard to the host country.”
Mueller, the Tibetan activist, said this is typical of the IOC: “The narrative changes depending on the circumstances. Back then they said the Olympics would open the door to change … (now they say) the Olympics are apolitical. “
Although it made nominal concessions to critics before 2008, Beijing is unlikely to do so again, said Jude Blanchette, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Xi’s China is not the China of 2008, and we shouldn’t expect too many conciliatory gestures, even with relatively mundane requests like easing web censorship for guests staying at hotels near the Olympic venues,” he said. “If anything, Xi administration will continue to streamline to ensure that no security issues arise.”
China is not in the same place economically either. While China was definitely a major player in 2008, it was still some sort of emerging economy, while now it is a global behemoth challenging the US for the title of the world’s largest economy. Since 2008, China’s GDP has risen from $ 4.6 trillion to $ 14.3 trillion, according to the World Bank. In recent years, the Xi Belt and Road Initiative, as well as trade agreements with the European Union and across Asia, have tied the world economy ever closer to Beijing.
This could be a boon to Beijing’s attempts to fend off any significant boycott. Nick Marro, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that “many developing countries in Xinjiang have not been as vocal as in the West” as emerging economies remain “interested in continuing to attract Chinese investment.”
Kassam, the Lowy analyst, said a formal boycott will be difficult for many countries amid the expected setback from Beijing, while companies that publicly refuse to sponsor the Games will essentially write off the Chinese market. This month, Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist state tabloid Global Times, predicted that “China will seriously sanction any country that obeys such a call (to boycott).”
While such calls mean nothing, Beijing still faces the immense challenge of not only surpassing, or at least surpassing, its own performance 14 years ago, but also creating a new monument to China’s growth in prestige and power.
Although the coronavirus has damaged China’s global reputation, it could make the task of the first games much easier since the pandemic began. Expectations will be lower, especially if the Tokyo Games are scrapped, or even heavily controlled and muted – or, worse, scrapped.
“The likelihood of an Olympic boycott in 2022 is increasing day by day.”Natasha Kassam, Lowy Institute
With coronavirus cases across China still very low and a mass vaccination program currently under way, Beijing may be one of the best-positioned cities to host traditional Olympic Games, especially the Winter Games, which tend to have fewer people and fewer athletes than at participate in the summer games. With more than 21 million people in Beijing, which is a short bullet train ride from many venues, China also has a built-in audience – and 12 months to get vaccinated.
However, when comparing Beijing and Tokyo, the coronavirus situation in each Olympic host city should be considered.
Tokyo was the epicenter of the Japan outbreak, recording over a quarter of the country’s 420,000+ cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. Beijing, which was strictly closed in the early days of the pandemic, has officially only registered around 1,000 cases.
Timing is also an important factor. Vaccines weren’t in the game when the 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed, and Japan only started its vaccination program this week. The 2022 Olympics will take place at a time when many countries have had just enough time to vaccinate at least part of their populations.
While the prerequisites are in place for China to benefit from successful games as a propaganda victory for dealing with coronavirus and its authoritarian style of governance, the course of the pandemic remains unpredictable and too many variables remain, let alone variants of concrete predictions. And countries and companies can surprise experts by complying with their calls for boycotts.
In the end, China’s leaders can hope that, as in 2008, after much excitement leading up to the Beijing 2022 event, only successful games will be remembered – and not the controversy.
CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed to the coverage.