The Beijing Summer Games in 2008 started out with a bang — thousands of fireworks shot from the rim of the Bird’s Nest stadium and exploded against the night sky, briefly turning the structure into a giant replica of the Olympic Torch. The stunning pyrotechnics show capped off an opening ceremony designed not only to wow but also to make a statement: China has arrived.
Dogged by reports about air pollution, protests in Tibet and a devastating earthquake that exposed even deeper fault lines in local governance in the lead-up to the 2008 Games, Beijing’s leaders were determined to shift focus to their accomplishments and improve China’s image. Holding a seamless Olympics that showed off world-class athletes and facilities demonstrated to the Chinese public and to the world that Beijing could compete on any global stage it chose.
The 2022 Winter Games are debuting this week in much different circumstances, more sober and without much of a wow factor because of the pandemic and controversies over human rights. Other host nations might see that as a disappointment. But for the Chinese Communist Party, it doesn’t matter. These Games, subdued and low-key as they may be, are already a win for Beijing — and other countries should take heed.
These Games are not about showcasing China’s rapid growth or ascendance to near-superpower status; that’s nothing new. Instead, the Games are about spotlighting the party-state’s firm control at a time when so many other countries appear to be floundering politically.
It would be easy to assume that a diplomatic boycott, outcry from human rights organizations and lukewarm displays from sponsors tarnished the event even before it began. But the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t need outside approval to chalk up these Games in the column of its domestic successes. This offers a telling lesson for other countries: If they want to censure China, the Olympic arena is probably not the best place to do it.
The United States wanted to send a message with its diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights abuses. Several allies followed suit. Fewer foreign dignitaries and the absence of foreign spectators, though, are not necessarily bad things in the eyes of Beijing. These Games will be a largely domestic affair anyway, given that China’s “zero-Covid” strategy has made foreign entry into the country difficult. Only athletes, officials, support staff members and journalists are able to enter the “closed loop” Olympics zone. Attendance is limited to residents of mainland China and is by invitation only.
In fact, Communist Party leaders likely exhaled a sigh of relief that they had an excuse to close off the Games. Foreign spectators might call unwanted attention to the repression of the Uyghurs and crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. Or object to the strictly policed Olympic bubble, enforced with daily Covid tests, separate transportation systems and an app that has raised questions about digital surveillance.
Similarly, calls for broader athlete and sponsor boycotts have largely fallen flat. While foreign sponsors have been muted in advertising their support for the Games, they’ve just as notably avoided addressing human rights concerns for the most part. The absence of a full-scale walkout and withdrawal of sponsorship signals that the Communist Party can largely dictate the terms of engagement. Athletes who might not hesitate to protest in some way elsewhere likely will remain quiet in Beijing, warned by Chinese organizers to hold their censure or risk having their credentials revoked.
Environmentalists are apt to point out the inconvenient truth that the Winter Games are only possible due to the large-scale manufacture of snow and ice in a region marked by water shortages. There are, of course, many Chinese who speak out on these and other topics — but the government’s control of domestic media and the internet makes it easier to silence such voices.
The International Olympic Committee appears to share the Chinese party-state’s desire for a controlled event free of televised controversy. I.O.C. officials have rebuffed attempts to discuss the moral or political implications of holding the Games in an authoritarian state, asserting time and again that sports and politics should not mix. The I.O.C. president drew heavy criticism for appearing to accept the Communist Party’s line on the disappearance of an Olympic tennis player, Peng Shuai, despite international alarm — he said this week he is planning to meet with her in Beijing.
The committee’s executive director for the Games has said that organizing the Olympics “was easy” given China’s determination to overcome any obstacles. He apparently meant this as a compliment, though it speaks volumes about the Communist Party and the committee’s shared singular focus on end goals and not the means of getting there.
With Communist Party leaders and committee officials both apparently indifferent to criticism and resistant to pressure, it’s clear now that countries will have to find other venues and approaches if they want to censure or hurt China.
The United States and other countries should rethink their approach. A full-scale boycott, for example, would have been harder for China to ignore. Or perhaps they should leave the Games out of the mix entirely and stick to policy measures like sanctions or using trade and more traditional diplomacy.
Regardless of how many medals its Olympians garner, China is already ahead on the leaderboard. The party-state has proved it can stage a global event on its own terms.
A successful Olympics — one free of widespread Covid outbreaks and visible public protests — also will further solidify the position of President Xi Jinping, who’s almost certain to secure a third term in power this year. His decade at the top of the party has been characterized by increasing repression of activists, heightened use of surveillance technology, and a less outward-looking orientation for China.
These Olympics, “closed loop” and all, are the perfect living showcase of Mr. Xi’s mechanisms for governance, built up over the past decade, and vision for the future.
And when the opening ceremony kicks off, few will be present to offer a competing vision. Those who might oppose or undermine the Chinese leadership’s drive toward the future did not receive an invitation to this party.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (@mauracunningham) is a historian and co-author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
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