Back in August 2008, the world was excited about the China that was hosting the Summer Olympics, though its human rights record was not golden. There was also a pervading sympathy for a country that had just lost 90,000 people—many of them schoolchildren—to an earthquake in Sichuan province just three months earlier. Dignitaries from rich and poor countries attended, including George W. Bush, the first sitting US president to attend an Olympics overseas.
Fourteen years later, a different China is hosting the Winter Olympics.
How has China changed in the past decade?
China’s per capita GDP in 2008 was about $3,500. Today, it’s more than $12,500. In 2008, Google hadn’t yet pulled out of China, and internet restrictions and censorship, though they already existed, were far less strict than today’s. Hong Kong was still hoping for a fuller democracy. At that time, with China newly part of the global trading system and scores of students flocking abroad to study, there was a sense that the country might move toward becoming more politically liberal despite the tragic history of the Tiananmen protests. A day before arriving in Beijing, Bush declared in a speech in Thailand: “Change in China will arrive on its own terms…yet it will arrive.”
In its second turn as Olympics host, however, China is more inward looking and more nationalistic than the country of 2008.
Over the last decade, China has deepened its repression of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, whose main crime is belonging to a different faith and ethnicity than China’s Han majority. This intensified in recent years into a campaign of mass forced detention. The crackdown on Hong Kong in the wake of 2019 pro-democracy protests has also soured sentiment toward China. Then, in November, the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai, after she made an allegation of sexual coercion against a former top Communist Party official, was the last straw.
In December, several countries, including the US, Belgium, Canada, and the UK, announced they would not be sending official delegations to the Winter Olympics. Japan, which is not sending a diplomatic delegation, this week also adopted a human rights resolution expressing concern over the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and calling on the government to work with the international community to cooperate on the issue.
Still others, such as New Zealand, said they also wouldn’t send officials—due to covid.
Will an Olympic boycott work?
In a world where billionaire investors and multinationals don’t hesitate to put rights issues aside when dealing with China, perhaps this gesture of resistance by governments is valuable in its own right. The boycotts also reflect growing alarm in the US and Europe that China presents not just competition but a serious threat to the global order shaped by the west.
If history is any guide, though, boycotts of the Olympics don’t do anything. US athletes were barred from competing in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics over the Soviet Union’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, to little real effect. Nor is it clear that citizens of the boycotting countries are that invested in the move. Meanwhile, the diplomatic boycotts will be virtually unnoticeable against the backdrop of China’s strict covid rules that have enveloped the games in a bubble from which some judges don’t expect to emerge until April.
This does present some awkwardness for boycotting countries who will still want to celebrate the victories of their athletes—but somehow while still maintaining an air of detachment. And Olympic sponsors are advertising in China, but keeping far more of a low profile outside of the country, judging by Olympics TV spots.
Chinese state media has called the US boycott “despicable,” and accused countries of politicizing a venue for global friendship. “They can put on a performance, while we will hold the event ourselves,” read an opinion piece (link in Chinese) from the Beijing Daily.
What China wants from the Games
Despite the awkwardness surrounding these Games, Beijing very much needs them to be a rallying call to enhance Chinese citizens’ faith in its governance, while many of those citizens are exhausted and anxious from life under the world’s most stringent covid-zero policy.
Citing that policy, China won’t sell tickets to either the general Chinese public or foreign spectators. Instead, there will be carefully screened and quarantined groups, who will likely dutifully chant approved official slogans and look out for any protest-adjacent behavior from foreign participants.
Nor will it be a big deal for state broadcasters to air rows of empty seats, since the emptiness will look instead like a symbol of China’s resolute stance in the battle against covid, rather than any reflection on its global status.