February 17, 2022
IntelBrief: China’s 2022 Olympics Pose Opportunities and Challenges
On February 4, 2022, the 24th Winter Olympics opened at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, China. Over 80 countries have sent athletes to compete at the games, but the United States and several other countries—including Australia and the United Kingdom—have diplomatically boycotted citing human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including the ongoing genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population and other minorities. China disputes the claims and has criticized foreign governments for politicizing sports and meddling in China’s “internal issues.” As with any large international sporting event, the CCP will seek to leverage the domestic and international political opportunities that the games bring. However, the games have also presented a host of challenges for the CCP, both at home and abroad.
Despite the international controversy over Beijing 2022, there are several important opportunities for the CCP. Chief among them is cultivating nationalism and continued support for Chairman Xi, something that is critically important ahead of the 20th Party Congress. Policies implemented around the 2022 games, dubbed “Olympic Promises,” seek to bolster approval for Xi. Yet, nationalism is a “Pandora’s box” that is sometimes hard to control, something that has become abundantly clear with the wave of harassment targeting U.S.-born skater Zhu Yi after she fell competing for Team China. Within hours, derogatory hashtags on Chinese social media applications, like Weibo, had hundreds of millions of views, and online users attacked the skater for being born in the U.S. and not being able to speak fluent Chinese. The CCP censorship apparatus quickly scrambled to remove derogatory hashtags, posts, and accounts, as the party seeks to control derogatory online behavior throughout the games—including those provoked by clear nationalistic sentiments.
The CCP also seeks to leverage the games to illustrate the superiority of China’s governance system—especially with the aim of pointing to the public health success of the country’s “Zero COVID” policy in contrast to other states that have struggled to control the spread. This presents an important counterweight to negative global perceptions of China in the wake of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted, for example, in a tide of anti-Asian American hate crimes in the United States. Following an intense diplomatic campaign in which China supported many developing countries with the virus, this turnaround was an especially important endorsement of China’s public health policy. However, the Omicron wave hitting China ahead of the games forced officials to significantly limit the number of spectators, interfering with the CCP’s ambition to contrast the images of empty seats at last year’s summer Olympics in Japan.
Just like with the 2008 Summer Olympics hosted by Beijing, China ultimately seeks to signal to the rest of the world that it is a global power that deserves international recognition and respect by hosting the 2022 games. By showcasing the massive infrastructure developments—which includes over two dozen athletic venues, all allegedly powered by green energy—the CCP endeavors to highlight China as a high-tech innovator committed to sustainable development. To this end, Xi has held several important high-level meetings on the sidelines of the games. Chief among them was the meeting between Chairman Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin that resulted in Beijing and Moscow agreeing on closer economic and security cooperation, including a 30-year contract for Russia to supply gas to China and a joint statement opposing “NATO expansion.” Following two years of no international travel for Xi, and significant deterioration in China’s relations with U.S. and other liberal democracies, he leveraged the diplomatic clout of the 2022 games to bolster China’s soft power.
Still, China faces an international backlash over its increasingly aggressive foreign policy, lack of transparency over the COVID-19 outbreak, and human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong—issues on which the 2022 games have further spotlighted. Ahead of Beijing 2022, governments, sports organizations, and over 180 human rights groups called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the games outside of China due to the ongoing human rights abuses in the country. China responded by criticizing the “politicization of sports.” Yet, China’s torchbearers included a People's Liberation Army (PLA) regiment commander who fought in the Galwan clash with India and an athlete from the Uyghur minority—a provocative move that was criticized as whitewashing the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. International companies that are sponsors of the games have also faced online vitriol and calls for boycotts on social media, with users citing discontent for supporting the Chinese government in light of human rights abuses. On the ground, reports of censorship targeting foreign journalists and athletes, coupled with the security concerns for athletes and journalists alike, including alleged spyware in the official mobile application for the games, has further discredited Beijing internationally.
Indeed, the 2022 Olympic games have proven to be the most controversial international sporting event since the 1980s, when the U.S. and the USSR implemented reciprocal of the 1980 and 1984 summer Olympics. Chairman Xi and the CCP have sought to leverage the games in order to strengthen China’s posture both at home and abroad; however, Beijing 2022 has also been marred by several challenges to the CCP, chief among them widespread international critiques of the government’s ongoing human rights abuses. While the CCP alleges that the event is not to be politicized, international sporting events often have political undertones and implications, and actions by both Beijing and Washington around the games serve to further expose the deepening chasm between the U.S. and China.