Joe Renouard is Resident Professor of American Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China.
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 (which were ultimately held in Sydney), Beijing seized the 2008 Olympics as an opportunity to show the world that the nation was reforming, modernizing and opening up. peacefully. Despite contemporary concerns about pollution, logistics, cost and human rights, the games were a huge success for the host nation on almost every level. In retrospect, the 2008 Olympics are widely considered a triumph of soft power.
Nations traditionally expect public relations benefits for hosting the Olympics. Successful games can signal resilience and recovery in a war-torn city, as was the case in Antwerp in 1920 and London in 1948. They can herald post-war economic and social renewal, as in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964. Or it can announce the arrival of a former developing country at the table of regional powers, for example Seoul in 1988 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The 2008 Games not only heralded China’s arrival on the world stage, but as sinologist Kevin Caffrey put it Noted“Beijing’s performance was [also] a harbinger of broader regional and international ambitions – a message of intent that indicated a broader Chinese plan for re-engagement with the world to a degree not seen since the start of the Ming dynasty. Seeing America and its partners mired in the war on terror and the financial crisis, Chinese leaders have embarked on a much more opportunistic and assertive post-Olympic path to global influence.
China in 2022
Therefore, China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics is a very different place. It is no longer “China Rising” – a mid-level developing state that hopes to one day join the ranks of world powers – rather it is “China Rising”, a powerful competitor with formidable ambitions. China today is more than three times richer than 14 years ago, with a parallel to augment GDP per capita, and he is much more confident. It is the largest manufacturing country in the world and the largest economy in terms of PPP. The Chinese people have seen a substantial increase in their standard of living alongside unprecedented public investment in infrastructure, education and health care. Everyone 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 obsessed with technology that cell phone use is virtually universal and the country’s exchange economy is now efficient. cashless.
But with China’s growing confidence, its messages to the world have also become more nationalistic. After many years of “hiding its strength” and “bidding its time” (in the words of visionary leader Deng Xiaoping), Xi Jinping-era China has become much more assertive in pursuing its interests over all fronts, from trade to investment. technology, regional security and global governance. He increased annual military spending by more than tripleand its diplomats now revel public showdown. China has not only benefited from its work within the framework of the existing world order, but it has also boldly created its own institutions based on a Chinese vision of rules and norms.
This assertiveness has alarmed more than one in Western capitals. The 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by optimistic discourse of globalization and widespread faith in the transformative nature of China’s integration into the world order. By contrast, today’s discursive framework is filled with pessimism about China’s intentions and America’s retreat from global leadership. Beijing attacked Washingtoncold war mentality“and its anti-China”containmentpolicy, while Western governments have declared China a systemic rival whose audacity requires “whole-of-government” replies.
The “global integration” zeitgeist of 2008 has given way to a more fractured, nationalistic and restricted international environment. China is one of the world’s great financiers, and its capital is welcomed in many corners of the developing world, but it is also boldly lobbying its interests in the East Asian region and strengthening its claims to Hong Kong, Taiwan and the entire South. South China Sea – while insisting that it is simply exercising its rights over its sovereign territory. At home, ordinary citizens have experienced a shrinking space for civil society and stricter regulations on business.
While in normal times the Olympics provide a tremendous opportunity for national self-promotion and for visitors to experience the host country first-hand, the 2022 Winter Games are unlikely to be remembered as Olympic Games which have “humanized” the image of the host country. No one doubts that the People’s Republic knows how to put on a great show. After all, countless foreign visitors in 2008 noticed 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 in a bind. On the one hand, Chinese leaders have every reason to boast about their effective methods. While other governments were unable to contain the virus, China’s full lockdown in 2020 effectively isolated the disease and quickly returned the country to a near-normal situation. On the other hand, their zero-tolerance policy requires an overwhelming response to even modest outbreaks, such as when they recently locked down 13 million people in the city of Xi’an. At these Olympics, they diligently separate athletes from the public and maintain a strict screening regime that has already disturbed training routines of some athletes.
Geopolitical differences weigh even more heavily on these games. A small bloc of Western and Pacific countries known to challenge Beijing – including the US, UK, Canada, Australia and Japan – did not send 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 to even send athletes due to Cold War tensions, but it remains a minor irritant. for Chinese leaders. Telling sign of the times, each side made it a propaganda victory. In the words of a state media Xinhua, “The so-called American ‘diplomatic boycott’. . . turned out to be just a flop.
Far more worrisome from Beijing’s perspective is the possibility of public incidents, particularly criticism of the nation’s human rights record. Chinese authorities have hinted that visiting athletes must abide by Chinese laws on public speaking, although if someone goes rogue it will create a dilemma. Are they really going to punish a guest athlete who speaks out? This would likely result in both a bilateral diplomatic spat and an international public relations disaster. We will only know if it happens. Others also hoping to avoid such incidents include the IOC (which banned all forms of political expression ahead of the Tokyo Games last year), corporate sponsors (many of whom have close business ties to China) and approved broadcasters.
There is still plenty of room for success. If organizers can avoid virus outbreaks, manage logistical challenges and limit embarrassing incidents, then they can let sporting events themselves provide enough drama and inspiring stories for international audiences. These Olympics may not change the Chinese system or ease Sino-Western tensions in the short term, but one day we may see 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.