Beijing’s 2008 Olympics was a soft power victory for China, but 2022 may be another story
Kept in mind today as an occasion in which record-breaking sporting accomplishments were matched just by the incredible pageantry and company of the Games, the success of the Beijing Olympics was no certainty.
China had actually never ever hosted the Olympics previously, and in the run-up to the 2008 Games — held under the motto “One World, One Dream” — there were require a boycott over the nation’s human rights records, issues for how Beijing’s well-known smog may impact the health of professional athletes, and mad pro-Tibet demonstrations along much of the Olympic Torch relay.
In the house, Chinese organizers and professional athletes dealt with enormous pressure to manage not simply sporting success, however to produce a monolith to nationwide pride, a soft-power display that would seal China’s location as an emerging worldwide superpower.
Some 14 years after hosting its inaugural Olympics, Beijing will end up being the very first city to phase both the Summertime and Winter season editions of the Games, in February 2022.
Lee Jung-woo, a professional on sports diplomacy and global relations at the University of Edinburgh, stated 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 an essential lesson of 2008 for China, beyond the worth of the Olympics for soft power, is that an effective Games can erase any memory of acrimony and hostility in the run-up to them.
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Kai Mueller, executive director at the International Project for Tibet Germany (ICT), was associated with the demonstrations. He stated they followed months of lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC), different nationwide and global sports associations, and Games sponsors, to raise longstanding issues over human rights — especially in the middle of Beijing’s crackdown on spiritual and political flexibilities in Chinese-controlled Tibet.
Reacting at the time, then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called the demonstrations a “crisis” and stated the torch relay was not “the joyous party that we wished it to be.” At the exact same time, he declared the Games might be a favorable impact, advancing “the social agenda of China, including human rights,” remarks that were not invited by Beijing.
“The likelihood of a 2022 Olympic boycott is increasing by the day,” stated Natasha Kassam, an expert at the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, and a previous 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 stated.
Thirteen years earlier, the Olympic motto “One World, One Dream” seemed like the kind of pablum common of the Games anywhere. Today individuals might be a lot more careful of exactly what that Chinese “dream” may appear like as China leans even more into its authoritarian design of governance — and after Xi himself embraced that expression as one of his essential mottos.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 individuals 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 might appear set for China to capitalize on a successful Games as a propaganda victory for its handling of coronavirus and its authoritarian design of governance, the trajectory of the pandemic remains unpredictable and too many variables, not to mention variants, stay for any concrete predictions. And nations and business might 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 an effective Games — and not the debate.
CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed reporting.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.