The Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 were seen as a coming-out party for the economic and geopolitical powerhouse of the new China. For all the power projection of their grandly synchronised opening ceremony, attendees remember the Games’ warm atmosphere and Beijingers’ delight in welcoming visitors from across the world. Many western capitals saw the event as affirming their optimistic vision of a China becoming increasingly integrated into the world community — and one whose system would, with time, move closer to their own. Fourteen years later, the Beijing Winter Olympics opening next Friday are taking place in a very different China, and a different global context.
It seems a touch surreal that the Games are happening at all, at a moment when the Omicron variant has taken coronavirus cases to a new global high, and in a location where they will use almost entirely artificial snow. They will be held in a “closed loop” in which 11,000 visitors will be cocooned in three competition zones as much as 111 miles apart, completely sequestered from the Chinese population.
This bubble is intended to prevent contagion between Games participants and the local community, driven by the zero-Covid policy to which Beijing is still clinging. But it serves as at least a partial metaphor for today’s China: one that has moved strongly away from engagement with the west, and especially from any idea of integrating into a western-led international order.
Many Chinese blame the west for this divergence. The US has become increasingly mistrustful of a country it now sees as its principal strategic competitor. The trade war launched by the Trump administration has not been resolved by the Biden White House. Yet China’s shift was triggered earlier, by the man who, as a Politburo member, was in charge of final preparations for the Beijing summer Games: Xi Jinping.
In 2008, the US and its allies still thought bringing China into the global trading system and boosting economic ties would empower a middle class that would demand political freedoms.
In 2022, China does have a substantial middle class, record numbers of billionaires and a mighty economy. But it has shifted to a more authoritarian rule at home and combative relations abroad. A secret Communist party document circulated in 2012 — months before Xi became party chief, then president — was highly critical of what it called malicious ideals spreading in China such as constitutional democracy, civil society and universal values, and warned of western “anti-China forces”. Xi has acted forcefully to stop that spread.
China under Xi has conducted crackdowns on mainly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the opposition in Hong Kong, repressed internal dissidents, and curbed private businesses seen as posing a challenge to state power. It has asserted its claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and acted aggressively against foreign critics.
As a result, the winter Games face diplomatic boycotts — by the US, UK, Australia, Canada and others — that did not feature in 2008. Today’s Beijing leadership cares little. Domestic media will present a narrative of China successfully holding the Olympics against the odds, fearlessly managing the event in the face of a pandemic and attempted western interference.
Hopes that the 2008 Games were evidence of openness by Beijing to join the international order proved misplaced. The 2022 Winter Olympics may turn out to be a staging post on the way to China’s ambitions to lead a future world order of its own. Not for the first time in its history, the western world is left to rue how it got China so wrong.