In Beijing

Alec Ash

In the summer of 2008, when I first came to live in Beijing, five Fuwa – ‘fortune dolls’, the official mascots of the Beijing games – lined the new boulevards leading to the Olympic Park. Their names spelled out the phrase ‘Beijing Welcomes You’, complementing the official slogan of ‘One World, One Dream’. Pablum of unity aside, Beijing did welcome the world that summer: 204 nations sent athletes to China for what the international press liked to call its ‘coming out party’. There was a mad rush for tickets, and the technicalities of synchronised diving and equestrian dressage were pored over on Chinese blogs. YouTube, Facebook and Google were still freely accessible, civil society was on the up, and the nation was at the crest of the fang-shou (relaxing-tightening) cycle. At 8 p.m. on 8 August, the opening ceremony began with 2008 citizens banging ancient fou drums.

The Winter Olympics, which begin in Beijing today – the first day of spring in the Chinese lunar calendar – are usually more muted than the summer games. Even so, the contrast with 2008 is striking. Ninety-one nations are competing, of which fifteen are joining the US in a diplomatic boycott (or are not sending officials for unspecified reasons). Athletes are corralled in an Olympic bubble and ferried around in shuttle buses; Beijing’s residents have been instructed not to come to their aid in the event of a crash. Domestic ticket sales have been cancelled and the torch ceremony is an abbreviated three-day jog through Beijing. The measures are designed to achieve ‘zero-spread’ of Covid, but seem symbolic of the tightened, less outward-facing nation that China has become.

Olympic slogans and flags are a rare sight around Beijing. Social media users on Weibo have been warned not to repost copyrighted clips or content. Television viewing figures are expected to be lower than in 2008, and fewer newspaper inches have been devoted to the games. This is in part because winter sports are not widespread in China, which has little accessible snowy terrain and no social history of skiing. In the 2008 medal rankings, China beat the US to first place and won the most gold medals in Olympic history, a feat unlikely to be repeated in these winter games; the country isn’t expected to make the top ten.

Most of all, however, China no longer feels it has anything to prove. The country is four times richer in 2022 than it was in 2008. Fourteen years ago it had less than 300 km of high speed railway track; it has since laid almost 38,000 km. In 2008 Beijing had six subway lines, two newly opened for the games; now there are 27, one of the largest city networks in the world. Xi Jinping’s authoritarian turn, couched as it is in terms of anti-corruption and poverty alleviation campaigns, has been met with broad public support. Criticism from abroad has only exacerbated the nation’s defensive response.

A PhD politics graduate from Peking University, who goes by the name Frederanz, told me: ‘I believe that today’s China, unlike in 2008, does not need to host the Olympics in order to prove itself. To me and the majority of those around me, the winter Olympics are just an ordinary, major sporting occasion.’ I asked about the diplomatic boycott. ‘I think it’s just for political show,’ she said. ‘The US government and the Chinese government are putting on a show which is fundamentally no different, it’s both ridiculous and annoying.’

Yu Hai, a construction team leader, holds a more strident view: ‘The political resistance that these Winter Olympics are facing from abroad only shows that China, under the leadership of the Communist Party, is more and more powerful and prosperous!’

In China, the games are perceived as yet another example of Beijing showing up the West, containing Covid to host a flawless Olympics while America staggers along its continuing decline. In America and Europe, the event is a symbol of China’s authoritarianism, clamping down on free expression and sweeping abuses such as the cultural genocide in Xinjiang under the rug. Like foreign athletes separated from the rest of China in the Olympic bubble, the two camps will never meet.

But it should be possible to acknowledge China’s current political winter without forgetting its more summery Olympic past. In 2008, I attended the closing ceremony of the games, and watched as four hundred acrobats swirled around the red-ribboned Tower of Memory, representing the Olympic flame. In that period of ‘soft authoritarianism’, before Xi’s rise to power in 2012, the country appeared to be opening up, and it may again. The cycle continues, the wheel turns, winter gives way to spring, and the tightening of shou will eventually grind over into the loosening of fang.