As the sound of fireworks rang out over Beijing to mark the close of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China’s leaders could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief.
Remembered today as an event in which record-breaking sporting achievements were matched only by the spectacular pageantry and organization of the Games, the success of the Beijing Olympics was no sure thing.
China had never hosted the Olympics before, and in the run-up to the 2008 Games – held under the slogan “One World, One Dream” – there were calls for a boycott over the country’s human rights records, concerns for how Beijing’s notorious smog might affect the health of athletes, and angry pro-Tibet protests along much of the Olympic Torch relay.
At home, Chinese organizers and athletes faced immense pressure to pull off not just sporting success, but to produce a monument to national pride, a soft-power showcase that would cement China’s place as an emerging global superpower.
“Hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics was a symbol of China’s rejuvenation,” writes historian Zheng Wang. “Through the extravagant opening ceremony, the Chinese government showcased China’s historical glory and new achievements … unassailable evidence that China had finally ‘made it’.”
That feeling of China becoming a leader on the world stage was reinforced by another major development of 2008: the global financial crisis. As economy after economy in the West was devastated, China escaped largely unscathed – and able to spend a record $43 billion on hosting a sporting event.
Some 14 years after hosting its inaugural Olympics, Beijing will become the first city to stage both the Summer and Winter editions of the Games, in February 2022.
While the Winter Games do not have quite the prestige of the Summer competition, a successful Olympics next year could be as valuable a soft power win for China as 2008 – especially if they are the first unconstrained Games to be held since the coronavirus pandemic, with the delayed Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics looking ever more beleaguered.
Chinese President Xi Jinping – who last month visited several key Olympic venues – has been keenly aware of how the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, has affected China’s standing around the world, with Beijing facing criticism for failing to contain it. 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’s continued tight control over it.
Lee Jung-woo, an expert on sports diplomacy and international relations at the University of Edinburgh, said the 2008 Games “enabled China to demonstrate its emerging economy status. The 2022 Winter Olympics could help them to revamp their image from a world factory to a world power.”
And a key lesson of 2008 for China, beyond the value of the Olympics for soft power, is that a successful Games can wipe out any memory of acrimony and hostility in the run-up to them.
As the Olympic torch – the symbol of the Games – made its way from Greece to China in the spring of 2008, its route was thronged with supporters, and protesters.
Dubbed the “Journey of Harmony” by organizers, the relay was anything but. Demonstrators brawled with police and security in London and Paris, where protesters succeeded in forcing the torch to be extinguished and its bearer hustled away. In San Francisco, officials shortened and changed the route to bypass angry crowds, and canceled a public ceremony.
Kai Mueller, executive director at the International Campaign for Tibet Germany (ICT), was involved in the protests. He said they came after months of lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national and international sports associations, and Games sponsors, to raise longstanding concerns over human rights – particularly amid Beijing’s crackdown on religious and political freedoms in Chinese-controlled Tibet.
Responding at the time, then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called the protests a “crisis” and said the torch relay was not “the joyous party that we wished it to be.” At the same time, he claimed the Games could be a positive influence, advancing “the social agenda of China, including human rights,” comments that were not welcomed by Beijing.
But while they sparked fury in Beijing and caused considerable embarrassment to the IOC, the protests did not succeed in derailing the Games. Organizers pulled out all the stops to ensure the Games were a public relations triumph, making compromises on issues such as press freedom and human rights, even promising to allow protests – within strictly defined areas – in the Chinese capital.
Facing not just anger over the treatment of Tibetans, but outright claims of “genocide” against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s leaders may find it far harder to surf the wave of criticism this year than in 2008.
“The likelihood of a 2022 Olympic boycott is increasing by the day,” said Natasha Kassam, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, and a former Australian diplomat in China.
“Public opinion around the world has soured towards China, as grim realities of the Party-state become common knowledge. The level of public concern about human rights abuses in China in 2022 dwarfs the outrage around the 2008 Games,” she said.
Thirteen years ago, the Olympic slogan “One World, One Dream” sounded like the type of pablum typical of the Games anywhere. But now people may be a lot more wary of what exactly that Chinese “dream” might look like as China leans further into its authoritarian style of governance – and after Xi himself adopted that phrase as one of his key slogans.
In 2008, Beijing’s hosting of the Games was seen as a potential step towards further opening up and political reform in China, but the opposite has proved to be the case. While China seems unlikely to even pay lip service to the idea of liberalization this time around, foreign governments will also be far more skeptical of any possible gains, after patting themselves on the back ahead of 2008 only to be embarrassed when few of the supposed concessions were realized.
The IOC, for its part, is not pretending these Games stand a chance of influencing China’s political philosophy.
“The Olympic Games are not about politics,” Rogge’s successor, Thomas Bach, wrote last year. “Neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgment regarding the host country.”
Mueller, the Tibet activist, said this was typical of the IOC: “The narrative changes according to the circumstances. Back then, they said the Olympics would open the door to change … (now they say) the Olympics are non-political.”
While it made nominal concessions to critics ahead of 2008, Beijing is unlikely to repeat this, 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 on relatively banal requests like easing up on the web censorship for guests of hotels near the Olympic venues,” he said. “If anything, the Xi administration will tighten further to ensure there are no security issues.”
Nor is China in the same place economically. While definitely a major player in 2008, China was still an emerging economy of sorts, whereas now it is a global behemoth, challenging the US for the title of largest economy in the world. Since 2008, China’s GDP has grown from $4.6 trillion to $14.3 trillion, according to World Bank data. In recent years, Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as trade deals with the European Union and across Asia, have tied the global economy ever more tightly to Beijing.
This could be a boon for Beijing’s attempts to stave off any significant boycott. Nick Marro, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, pointed out that “many developing nations haven’t been as vocal around Xinjiang as we’ve seen in the West,” as emerging markets remain “keen to continue attracting Chinese investment.”
Kassam, the Lowy analyst, said a formal boycott will be difficult for many countries, given the expected blowback from Beijing, while companies that publicly refuse to sponsor the Games will essentially be writing off the Chinese market. This month, Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times, predicted that “China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call (to boycott).”
Even if such calls amount to nothing however, Beijing still faces the immense challenge of not only topping – or at least equaling – its own performance 14 years ago, but in crafting a new monument to China’s growth in prestige and power.
Counterintuitively, while the coronavirus has hurt China’s global reputation, pulling off the first Games since the pandemic began could make this job a lot easier. Expectations will be lower, especially if the Tokyo Games are scrapped, or even go ahead in a heavily-controlled, muted fashion – or, worse still, are scrapped.
With coronavirus cases still very low across China, and a mass vaccination program underway, Beijing might be one of the best-positioned host cities to hold a traditional Olympics, particularly the Winter Games, which typically involve smaller crowds and fewer athletes than the Summer Games. With more than 21 million people living in Beijing, which is a short high-speed train ride from many of the venues, China also has a built-in audience – and 12 months in which to get them vaccinated.
Any comparisons between Beijing and Tokyo, however, should take into account the coronavirus situation in each Olympic host city.
Tokyo has been the epicenter of Japan’s outbreak, recording over a quarter of the country’s more than 420,000 total cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Beijing, which was placed under strict lockdown in the early days of the pandemic, has only officially recorded around 1,000 cases.
Timing is also an important factor. Vaccines were not in play when the Tokyo Games were postponed in 2020, and Japan only began its inoculation program this week. The 2022 Olympics will take place at the point when many countries will have had just enough time to vaccinate at least part of their populations.
But while the stage may appear set for China to capitalize on a successful Games as a propaganda victory for its handling of coronavirus and its authoritarian style of governance, the trajectory of the pandemic remains unpredictable and too many variables, not to mention variants, remain for any concrete predictions. And countries and companies may surprise pundits by following through on their calls for boycotts.
In the end, China’s leaders may hope that, like in 2008, after a lot of commotion in the run up to the event, all that is remembered about Beijing 2022 is a successful Games – and not the controversy.
CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed reporting.