- Stephen McDonell
- BBC reporter from Beijing
Beijing is about to become the first city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, but from 2008 to 2022, many things have changed.
This time around, the mood of the people, the attitude of the host government, and the expectations of the world are all different than before.
I covered the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and still live in China’s capital. In 2022, the atmosphere will definitely be very different.
Of course, the Summer Olympics always get more attention than the Winter Olympics because more countries invest in it. By the way, the new crown epidemic is also an important factor.
For China, a country that has officially pledged to adopt a “zero” strategy, it is impossible to hold a “normal” Winter Olympics amid the outbreak of the new crown epidemic in cities around Beijing.
One consequence is that tickets for the game will not be available to the public.
Instead, state-owned enterprises or other party and government organizations are distributing the tickets to their members, who will be required to comply with strict epidemic prevention measures, including potential isolation and multiple nucleic acid tests before and after watching the game.
However, even without the new crown epidemic, the China of today is no longer the China of 2008.
2008 kicked off on a hellish scene as a winter blizzard swept across southern China. A monk-led rebellion then erupted in Tibet, followed by a disastrous earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan, which killed an estimated 70,000 people.
At that time, the Wenchuan earthquake and the desperate race by rescuers to find survivors aroused great sympathy for China from the international community.
When the Summer Olympics began, then-CCP leaders were able to use this goodwill to showcase China, highlighting its booming economy, striking new architectural masterpieces, thriving and interesting cities, and a society that became more open— —It contains an avant-garde art scene, underground bands and an increasing number of foreign ideas.
In 2022, the country’s new leadership already has different priorities.
Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China’s attitude towards global perception is more like: we suffered a century of humiliation in the 20th century, our time has come, when we take our rightful place on the world stage, it should be up to you others People come to embrace us.
China “moving forward” in 2008
After the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics and was swept up by Sydney.
To secure the 2008 Olympics, the authorities announced changes to show that China has moved forward and is a trusted host nation.
One of the changes is the relaxation of travel restrictions for interviews by foreign journalists. Before that, journalists who wanted to travel anywhere in China needed permission from the local government.
In 2008, a group of reporters and I spoke at an event with Qin Gang of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is now China’s ambassador to the United States.
We asked him if the rules governing journalists would go back to the old way once the Olympics were over.
“Impossible,” Qin Gang said with a smile, imitating the shifting motion of a car. “China has only one gear, and that is to move forward.”
It really felt that way at the time.
Moreover, China has clearly made progress on many fronts. If you have been to Beijing for the last Olympic Games and come back now, you will see a lot of difference.
For example, the city’s transportation infrastructure has exploded.
In 2008, Beijing’s subway system had only four lines, and two new lines and the airport line were connected in the run-up to the Olympics. Now, with 27 lines and 459 stations – and counting – Beijing has grown into the world’s largest subway network.
Disappearing space in 2022
However, if a revisiting tourist digs a little deeper, they might also find that tolerance for content other than CCP-sanctioned ideology has diminished considerably, and some would even say it is disappearing.
In recent weeks, some dissidents have come under pressure not to stir up trouble while the world’s eyes are on China. This also happened in 2008. The difference now is that there are not so many intellectuals or human rights lawyers who need to be silent anymore, they have long been rounded up.
Even ordinary academics are nervous about being interviewed because their comments could be seen as discrediting their home country.
In fact, a group of intellectuals seen as troublemakers was not long ago restricted to group sharing on WeChat, China’s most important social media.
Zhang Yihe is one of them. She told the BBC: “I was angry at first because I couldn’t make my voice heard. Then I felt that anger was useless and only bad for my health.”
She said she did not expect the new restrictions imposed on her and others because of the sporting event to be eased even after the Olympics.
That’s not all that has changed.
Before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing had a unique, unrestrained nightlife. You can be sure that any overseas visitor will be blown away by this dynamic scene. All this was happening at the time.
To this day, the metropolis still has plenty to choose from, but the endless demolition has wiped out many small, creative shops.
I recently spoke to a Chinese architect who joked that 10 years ago he felt like he had to go out every night.
“Maybe it’s because I’m young,” he added with a smile, but after a pause he added: “The city was very different. I had a lot of foreign friends back then.”
At that time, architects were the hot cakes in the city. Many spectacular new buildings have been unveiled, from the Escher-style CCTV new building, the National Grand Theatre with its beautiful dome, to the dragon-like Terminal 3 of the Capital Airport.
The Olympic venues are just as breathtaking.
Wild artist Ai Weiwei worked as a consultant on the design of the National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest”.
I remember interviewing him at the time, talking about the Bird’s Nest and all the other striking world-class buildings in the capital, and his vision for the city’s future in terms of cutting-edge architecture.
“No, no, it’s over,” he said.
“That window, that moment is now over,” he said.
What the artist, currently in exile, means is that even before the 2008 Olympics ended, the space for bold artistic expression in architecture was closing.
I was skeptical at the time, but by 2014 Xi Jinping had publicly stated at a major cultural symposium that he had had enough of “weird buildings”.
But soon, the world’s attention will once again be on the Bird’s Nest, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The number of government representatives at the Winter Olympics will be reduced after a series of allegations of human rights abuses — notably the authorities’ serious violations of Uighur human rights in Xinjiang — sparked a diplomatic backlash.
Just as Beijing has become tough on other governments in recent years, some foreign governments have taken a tough stance on China.
People are reluctant to turn a blind eye to the CCP’s aggression against its own citizens.
How will people view the 2022 Winter Olympics?
At least to some extent, the cultural vision of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics will continue. Director Zhang Yimou is again at the helm.
He has been accused by some of being a traitor for his grueling films about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, which allegedly killed millions of people by famine. But he garnered huge acclaim for the visual feast he presented at the 2008 Olympics.
He may think that the Olympics simply provide another canvas on which to display China’s vision—its past and future.
Given China’s very different place in the world, it will be fascinating to see what he has come up with for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. This could affect how the rest of the world views the Winter Olympics as a whole.
This will be a televised event. It’s so cold, you can’t buy a ticket. The only foreigners attending the event here are the contestants and staff, and all they can see is everything in Beijing’s huge closed loop of epidemic prevention.
All of these factors also shape the future of this Winter Olympics.
But for a government worried about any mishaps, it might be a relief if the Winter Olympics could be a home-watched sporting event.