The first time China hosted the Olympics, it was a moment of hope and promise. The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing proved to be a coming-out party for an emergent China—rich, influential, technologically advanced, and, most of all, more and more open to the outside. Sure, the Communist regime’s human-rights abuses led to protests then, as they are doing now. But the international community set aside such differences to participate in what the Olympics are meant to be: a celebration of global sport and fellowship. China was joining the world, and the world welcomed it.
The latest Beijing Olympics, which begin on Friday, tell a darker story. With the coronavirus pandemic still rampaging around the planet, Beijing has understandably had to cordon off the Winter Games from the world. The few incoming travelers allowed, mainly those participating in the events, are being enclosed in a bubble, their interactions with the rest of the country limited by a blizzard of restrictions.
Nevertheless, the controls feel symbolic of China’s new attitude toward the world: tense, fearful, even domineering. The China of 2022 is not the China of 2008, and the Olympics are making that all too clear.
In 2008, the Summer Games appeared to be opening a window on an optimistic future, one in which China was a partner with the United States in an integrated global community. Here was a Communist government not aiming to overturn the U.S.-led world order (as the Soviet Union intended), but enmeshing itself in it. Those Olympics seemed a triumph of Washington’s policy of engagement with China. Activists disrupted the torch relay to protest Beijing’s ill treatment of Tibetans. But that didn’t stop then-President George W. Bush from attending the Games and meeting with China’s top leader at the time, Hu Jintao. China, as the Olympics seemed to highlight, was moving in the “right” direction: toward a more liberal society.
These Winter Games, by contrast, reveal an insular China in opposition to the current world order. In the past 14 years, China has gained power, wealth, and ambition—all sure to be on display in upcoming weeks. But with that has come rising nationalism and intolerance. This China wishes to dictate the terms of its relations with other nations, to ensure its interests predominate. That’s precisely how it’s managing the Winter Games. The world is not as welcome in China today as it was in 2008.
Nor is China as welcome in the world. As China’s foreign policy grows combative and its human-rights abuses worsen—as is most evident in the mass detention of minority Uyghurs in the far-west region of Xinjiang—the U.S. and many other countries have come to see China as their chief strategic adversary. This time, the calls to boycott the Games were too loud to ignore. The Biden administration barred government representatives from attending the event.
In hindsight, 2008 seems to have been the height of Communist China’s openness, while 2022 signals that the country’s door is closing—not entirely, but enough to make getting through it an uncomfortable squeeze. That door is being pulled shut by a Chinese leadership less trustful of and interested in integration, and pushed by foreign powers more apprehensive about China’s intentions. These Games may show that China’s rise no longer encapsulates the Olympic spirit, but endangers it.
Like all societies, China has experienced periods of openness and isolationism. The height of the Tang dynasty (618–907), for instance, was among China’s most culturally vibrant and also internationally minded eras. Central Asian fashion was all the rage with the medieval in-crowd and the empire’s capital, Chang’an, reveled in exotic delicacies and imported luxuries from the far horizons. Foreigners could be found throughout Tang society, from the humblest alleyways to the loftiest reaches of the imperial court. One Tang literary great waxed poetic about the titillating charms of a “Western” bar girl, who “laughs with the breath of spring / Dances in a dress of gauze!”
By contrast, the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) not only built the Great Wall but tried unsuccessfully to ban all private maritime trade in part to curtail the populace’s interaction with foreigners, whom the court considered a security risk. When Portuguese traders began to settle in Macau, the Ming built another wall, this one across the peninsula’s narrow neck, to keep the newcomers bottled up and, if necessary, deprived of food supplies.
The historical cycle seems to be repeating right now. In the late 1970s, the country’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, diagnosed that China’s poverty and technological backwardness were consequences of the “closed-door policy” pursued by Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Deng embarked on a program of “reform and opening up,” a phrase that achieved the status of religious mantra in Chinese politics. With “opening up” came the torrent of foreign money, foreign technology, and foreign skills that helped transform the economy into the world’s second-largest. And over time, foreign ideas flowed in, too—including, more recently, such phenomena as Harry Potter and #MeToo, which altered Chinese society. China’s leadership wasn’t thrilled with some of those incoming ideas, such as Western concepts of civil liberties, which could be politically dangerous. Since the dawn of the internet era, the government has erected the Great Firewall to control which information seeped into the country digitally. But by 2008, China was more accepting of the outside world than at any point in the Communist era.
Since then, the pendulum has swung back. Although President Xi Jinping still regularly promises more “opening up,” he is engineering an inward turn, driven by a contradictory combination of growing confidence and persistent insecurity. On the one hand, Xi appears more convinced than ever of the superiority of China’s political and social system, and has been working to shield it from corrupting foreign influences. On the other hand, Xi’s more aggressive foreign policy has also exposed vulnerabilities that he is striving to eliminate.
Those are largely economic. The export controls and sanctions Washington has imposed on China in recent years have hurt important Chinese companies, such as the telecom manufacturer Huawei, and highlighted just how dependent the economy remains on imported technology and other crucial inputs. For a nationalist like Xi, that just won’t do. He’s pivoted the economy toward “self-sufficiency,” a near-autarkic vision to promote Chinese production of whatever the country requires and replace imports with homemade alternatives. “We need to reshape our industrial chains by stepping up technological innovation and import substitution across the board,” Xi once commented. “We must build homegrown, controllable, secure, and reliable domestic production and supply chains in areas and links vital to our national security, so that they are self-sufficient at critical moments.” The government has intensified its focus on developing cutting-edge sectors with state aid and protection. For instance, in semiconductors, a major import item, the government is lavishing hundreds of billions of dollars on local chip companies with a target of supplying 70 percent of the country’s needs by 2025 (though China is nowhere close).
If successful, Xi’s drive could shrink his country’s role in the global economy. Chinese businesses and consumers would become less important as a source of sales and profits for China’s trading partners. A half decade ago, Chinese firms were eager to “go global.” Now, not so much. According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, outward investment by Chinese companies has been tapering off since a peak reached in 2017. Though it will probably rebound from a further, pandemic-induced slump, a sustained revival is unlikely unless Xi eases his grip on private enterprise and liberalizes China’s economy to accommodate foreign firms—and there’s no sign of either change. Lending by China’s state banks to emerging countries, which has become a major force in global development, has also fallen sharply in recent years. Ruchir Sharma, a specialist in emerging-markets investment, recently noted that China’s importance to global economic growth has already been declining for a number of years, and he cites the country’s self-sufficiency ambitions, its aging population, and a host of other factors as reasons for that trend—which may continue. “China may not matter as much as it once did,” he wrote.
China is blocking off many other aspects of society as well. State censorship of digital media continues to intensify as Xi attempts to gain greater control over information. Yahoo shut down its China services last year, joining the lengthy list of global internet companies unable to operate inside the Great Firewall; LinkedIn also withdrew and introduced instead a China-specific job-search app whose users cannot share posts or articles. Xi’s effort to infuse more “socialist” values into Chinese society has curtailed foreign influences. Amid a crackdown on celebrity culture—deemed inappropriate for upstanding party cadres—one social-media platform suspended the fan sites of many popular K-pop artists last year. Private schools can no longer offer virtual tutoring from foreign teachers. Harvard decided last year to relocate a Chinese-studies program from Beijing to Taipei because of unfriendly treatment of the visiting students. Authorities at the hosting Beijing university had prohibited them from holding a July 4 celebration.
China’s recent foreign policy reflects an effort to use the country’s economic muscle to tamp down criticism even outside its borders. Though China’s leaders have long bristled when foreign governments meddled in what they considered internal matters—such as Taiwan or Tibet—they generally took a pragmatic view, lodging their complaints and then eagerly doing business with even their staunchest critics. No more. Those who challenge China’s wishes can find themselves shut out. When Lithuania strengthened ties to Taiwan last year over furious Chinese protests, the small Baltic state found its exports to China blocked. More convinced than ever of the superiority of their authoritarian political system, China’s officials are no longer as tolerant of foreign criticism of their illiberal practices, either. As Xi said in a July speech: “We will not … accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.”
The coronavirus pandemic, during which China has taken stringent measures to prevent waves of infection from abroad, has further isolated the country. No one can fault China’s leaders for their caution, but the result is still remarkable: The world’s largest exporter has allowed a mere trickle of foreign travelers into the country for the past two years, and Chinese authorities appear to feel little pressure to loosen their protocols. Big-spending Chinese tourists once jetted around the world; now, with COVID quarantines so strict and transport limited, many have been bottled up at home.
China’s leadership is using the Winter Olympics to signal that the country’s door is as open as ever. “Let the whole world see our show,” a Beijing Winter Olympics song proclaims. It’s true that the government has eased up a bit on its strict COVID rules for the sake of the Games. Vaccinated visitors arriving in Beijing for the event have been allowed to forgo the usual three-week quarantine. But the extreme strictures can hardly make participants feel especially welcome. Authorities have warned residents to stay clear of the vehicles designated to usher athletes and other attendees between venues—even if those vehicles crash and their occupants appear to need help. Better to let a few foreigners suffer than have a local potentially contract COVID.
That’s a clear indication that, even when hosting this year’s Olympics, China’s priority is China. Chinese leaders seem irked at the criticism surrounding the Winter Games—a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the U.S. boycott “runs counter to the Olympic motto of ‘together’”—but not enough to address the concerns of the displeased. In a January phone conversation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi flatly told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to stop interfering with the Games, according to the official Chinese summary. Similarly, Beijing has ignored widespread concerns about the Chinese tennis star and former Olympian Peng Shuai, who disappeared in November after accusing a senior Communist politician of sexual abuse, even though her fate has further soured sentiment toward the Games.
Instead, the coercive mindset now so prevalent in China’s foreign policy applies to the Olympics too. One Beijing organizing-committee official warned that “any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations”—in other words, comments or protests on sensitive political issues—are “subject to certain punishment.”
All of this shows the realignment of China’s place in the world since 2008. Xi never invited President Joe Biden to the event, even before the diplomatic boycott; perhaps he assumed that Biden would refuse and so saved himself the embarrassment of rejection. But Xi did extend an invitation to his partner in oppression Vladimir Putin, even as the Russian president makes preparations to invade Ukraine. That means Putin will have the Olympic spotlight that once shone on the Americans. In 2008, Bush attended a U.S.-China basketball game with then–Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. Yang, now a member of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo, is the official who became a national hero for tongue-lashing Blinken in an Alaska meeting last year about the failings of American democracy and the impropriety of Washington’s China policy. “The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” he said.
Still, the icy sentiment blowing through these Olympics is not quite a cold war. The U.S. has been willing to embarrass the host country only up to a point. Unlike President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Biden’s snub of this year’s events will not prohibit American athletes from taking part. Perhaps we will look back on these Olympics not as a harbinger of an isolated China at odds with the world but as no more than a mark of temporarily tense times.
As matters stand, though, the Winter Games could be an unfortunate pivot point. In 2008, the Olympics foreshadowed China’s rise as a global leader and the great possibilities that could bring; 2022 suggests that a more powerful China will have a more conflicted relationship with the world. With the events closed to visiting spectators, the Chinese will stand alone, reveling in their own perceived greatness; the outside world will participate entirely on Chinese terms. Just the way Beijing likes it.