For most of its history, China had little use for the kinds of competitive sports that were popular in the West. Qing-dynasty scholars associated them with the undignified domain of laolizhe (“people who rely on physical strength”). But, in 1895, China suffered a swift defeat in a war with Japan, which convinced a generation of Chinese thinkers that building international respect must begin with mastering physical competitions. “If we want to make our country strong,” Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China, declared, “we must first make sure our people have strong bodies.”
In the century and a quarter since, as Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, observed in his book “Olympic Dreams,” the Games have become a periodic opportunity to articulate “the meaning of being Chinese.” In 1952, the fledgling Communist government pressured the International Olympic Committee to abandon Taiwan and recognize Beijing as the representative of the Chinese nation. (It took three decades to reach a deal, under which Taiwan competes as Chinese Taipei.) In 1984, during a warming of relations with the United States, China did not join a Soviet boycott of the Summer Games in Los Angeles. “Nearly a hundred thousand fans in that Opening Ceremony stood up to give China a standing ovation,” Xu said, in a recent interview.
China’s fascination with Olympic glory enters its latest chapter on February 4th, when Beijing opens the 2022 Winter Games, thirteen and a half years after it hosted the Summer Games, making it the first city to hold both. But the occasion has been beset by extraordinary pressures from the realms of politics, diplomacy, and public health. The organizers, determined to keep the Games on schedule—and to prove that China’s “zero COVID” policy could withstand the influx of more than three thousand athletes, coaches, and officials—designed a “closed loop” network of venues, hotels, and transportation to sequester attendees from the population. Athletes have been warned not to roam beyond the boundaries, much less to tweet anything negative about China’s government. At a news conference, an official warned that any “behavior or speech” that breaks “Chinese laws and regulations” will be subject to punishment. (Beijing is apparently willing, however, to use social media to try to soften that stance abroad. A contract filed in the official registration of foreign agents, in Washington, D.C., shows that Chinese diplomats paid a consulting firm based in New Jersey for at least 3.4 million impressions on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitch, highlighting “touching moments,” “positive outcomes,” and other sunny Olympic elements.)
For the 2008 Summer Games, to mollify critics, the organizers pledged to “enhance all the social sectors, including education, medical care, and human rights.” That commitment fuelled hopes that the event might become a catalyst akin to the 1988 Summer Games, in Seoul, which hastened South Korea’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy. China made a stunning investment in preparation—and all but ignored the human-rights pledge. “Protest zones” were established for demonstrators who were, at the time, particularly concerned about repression in Tibet, but the police approved no protests.
Nevertheless, from Beijing’s perspective, the 2008 Games were a success, attracting record-breaking television audiences and more than three hundred thousand foreign tourists to a spectacle that amounted, in the ubiquitous media cliché of the time, to China’s “coming-out party.” Over the complaints of human-rights groups, President George W. Bush was one of scores of foreign heads of state who attended the opening ceremony, on the theory that pleasing Chinese leaders would ultimately make them more receptive and confident, less prone to xenophobia.
That was not to be. If Chinese leaders took a lesson from those Games, it was more likely about the power of defiant self-protection. Not only had they held off demands for reform but, weeks later, the Wall Street mortgage crisis sapped their trust in the U.S. financial system, and they grew increasingly suspicious of ideas and technology from the outside. Since the Arab Spring, in 2011, China has arrested or silenced a generation of lawyers, journalists, and civil-society activists. The pandemic has rendered the country only more opaque: academic exchanges have withered, many foreign correspondents have been expelled, and authorities have tightened access to measurements of China’s economy.
Meanwhile, China’s relationships with the U.S. and its allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia, have soured. The Trump Administration pressed Beijing over trade, territorial disputes, threats to Taiwan, and the crackdown in Hong Kong, and accused it of waging a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. The Biden Administration has maintained much of that tension, declaring that the U.S. and China “need not have a conflict” but should brace for “extreme competition” on the economic stage. Instead, Chinese diplomats and leaders have embraced the spirit of confrontation. In a speech last July, on the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping declared that foreigners who bully China will “dash their heads against a Great Wall of steel.”
By the time Beijing revealed a slogan for the upcoming Games, last fall, it felt like a relic from another time: “Together for a Shared Future.” China soon announced that, because of the pandemic, no foreign visitors would be allowed to buy tickets to events, and the political rifts beneath the Games were about to become more visible. On November 2nd, Peng Shuai, a tennis star and a three-time Olympian, accused the former Chinese Communist Party leader Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Peng went missing for a couple of weeks, triggering an outcry from athletes, governments, and the Women’s Tennis Association. (Zhang has not responded to the charges; in a subsequent interview, Peng recanted them.) In a sign of how much China has come to dominate Olympic politics, the I.O.C. president, Thomas Bach, called merely for “quiet diplomacy.” He has since said that he will meet with Peng in Beijing.
In December, marking a contrast with America’s handling of the 2008 Games, the Biden Administration announced a “diplomatic boycott,” citing China’s human-rights record—especially the internment and physical abuse of Muslims. Canada, the U.K., Denmark, and several other countries joined the boycott. Officially, China dismissed the gesture as “pure grandstanding” over a “so-called ‘genocide,’ ” but nobody acquainted with Chinese politics believes that the slight did not sting. The Olympics may project China’s deep desire to “make our country strong,” as Sun Yat-sen said, but, as long as its political leaders mock and condemn efforts to protect some of its most vulnerable people, they will struggle to win international respect. ♦