The Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 were billed as China’s “coming out party” to the world. And what a party it was. The sound of 2,008 drummers pounding out a beat in perfect unison reverberated through the enormous “Bird’s Nest” stadium during the opening ceremony. Fireworks exploded above the capital from the Forbidden City, where China’s last emperors ruled, to the Great Hall of the People, where the Communist Party’s leaders now meet. An adorable young girl lip-synced “Ode to the Motherland”, which the actual singer, deemed not quite pretty enough, had recorded earlier backstage.
Everything about the spectacle was designed to inspire awe. From the scale to the synchronicity to the rendering of Chinese culture and history, all executed flawlessly in front of an audience of global leaders that included George W Bush and Vladimir Putin. Officially, the slogan was “One World One Dream”, but in truth the Games were more about what the future leader Xi Jinping would call the “China Dream” – reclaiming the country’s rightful place on the world stage as a great and respected power.
“The 2008 Olympics was a crucial part of China’s long journey from the shame of being labelled the ‘sick man of Asia’ to the top of the gold medal table,” Xu Guoqi, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, told me. Hosting the Games in such magnificent style, Xu said, was intended to demonstrate how far the country had come under Communist rule since 1949; it was a glittering display of China’s independence, strength and wealth.
Back then, Xi Jinping was a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who had been promoted quickly through the ranks. He joined the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most senior decision-making body, in November 2007, and was tasked with overseeing the final preparations for the Olympics. It was a high stakes test of his leadership skills, and the success of the Games reflected well on Xi, bolstering his prospects for higher office.
In 2008, as with 2022’s Winter Olympics, the wonder over China’s feats of logistical prowess was punctured by a condemnation of the country’s record on human rights. The actor Mia Farrow dubbed the Games the “Genocide Olympics” and urged world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony over China’s support for the Sudanese government, which was then accused of ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The Olympic torch relay was repeatedly disrupted by activists protesting China’s crackdown in Tibet.
But those who wanted the Games to go ahead argued that engagement was the best way to advance human rights. Hosting the Olympics in Beijing, they claimed, would be a powerful catalyst for change. “Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, ‘We close the door and say no,’” the then executive director of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), François Carrard, explained to the New York Times when Beijing was awarded the Olympics in 2001. “The other way is to bet on openness… We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.” The IOC’s president at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, predicted the Olympics would bring about “a new era for China”.
It was not just the IOC that believed greater freedoms and a bright future might follow. In December 2008, in the afterglow of the Olympics, a young scholar named Liu Xiaobo helped draft a manifesto known as Charter 08 that circulated among intellectuals and activists. The document set out a bold vision for a China no longer dominated by the CCP.
Inspired by the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, which was led by dissidents including the future president Václav Havel, the Chinese document called for democratic reforms and an end to one-party rule. Echoing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the authors demanded free elections and a representative government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
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The party’s response was swift and brutal. Liu and other purported ringleaders were arrested. After a perfunctory trial he was sentenced to 11 years in jail. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but by then he had disappeared into the Chinese prison system. He was represented at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo by an empty chair and died in detention in 2017.
But that the manifesto circulated at all now seems remarkable, let alone that thousands of people signed it with their real names. That alone is testament to how much has changed in China since the comparatively heady days of 2008. Fourteen years later, there will be no Charter 22 following the Beijing Winter Games, which no one believes will usher in a new approach to human rights. Xi has indeed declared a “new era”, just as the IOC president once predicted, but so far that era has been defined by relentless repression and increasing political control, not openness.
As the 2022 Winter Olympics begins on 4 February, the Chinese government is perpetrating genocide in Xinjiang, according to a number of international bodies, including the UK parliament and the US State Department. At least one million Uyghurs and people from other ethnic minorities are being held in internment camps, where there are claims of systematic rape, forced sterilisation and torture. Xi has presided over the most concerted crackdown on human rights and individual freedoms in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society has been gutted.
Xi is also pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, exhorting his diplomats to display “fighting spirit” and pressing territorial claims in the East and South China Sea and on the border with India. Military exercises near Taiwan, which Beijing regards as sovereign Chinese territory, have been stepped up and the island is reporting near-daily incursions by Chinese jets into its Air Defence Identification Zone.
The rivalry with the United States, meanwhile, is intensifying, with observers issuing warnings about a “new cold war”. The US is one of several countries, including the UK, Australia and Canada, who are staging a diplomatic boycott of the Games to protest China’s human rights abuses. Chinese foreign ministry officials have in response insisted that Western officials were not invited in the first place and warned that the US would “pay a price”.
In part, this shift to a more muscular posture has been driven by China’s growing confidence in its state-led economic model and authoritarian governance, which its official media outlets like to contrast with what they present as the decline and disarray of the West. Shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics the global financial crisis struck, and officials in China point to the country’s rapid recovery, after a substantial government stimulus package, as evidence of the CCP’s superior political system.
In the years since, GDP growth rates have held up and real incomes have continued to rise, though so too has inequality. China has amassed the world’s largest navy, founded its own international devel-opment bank, and launched a global infrastructure project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which spans more than 140 countries and is intended to rival the post-war US Marshall Plan in Europe. China is still on course to become the world’s largest economy by 2030.
The other significant factor in the post-2008 shift is Xi himself, and how wrong many international observers were about who he was and where he would lead China. The son of one of the “eight immortals” – the original CCP revolutionaries who served alongside Mao Zedong – Xi enjoyed a childhood of relative luxury among the manicured grounds and tranquil water features of the exclusive Beijing compound reserved for the party’s leadership. But he also saw how rapidly power and its associated privileges could disappear. His father was purged, and during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution – which from 1966 plunged the country into a decade of violence and chaos – the younger Xi was “sent down” to the countryside to be re-educated through labour.
When Xi was named the party’s new leader in 2012, Peidong Sun, who was then a professor at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, remembers the optimism that greeted him and the theories about how his past might shape his rule. Some colleagues believed “the Xi Jinping generation could lead China to a better future and contribute to the international community”, she recalled. They had “high expectations” and “believed that because Xi’s generation had lived experience of the Cultural Revolution and had benefited from Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening up the economy, China would never have a great leap backward again”.
Others, like Sun, were more cautious, and that sense of foreboding has turned out to be justified. Xi reasserted the party’s control over all aspects of society. “East and west, south and north, the party leads on everything,” he declared. That included academic freedoms, and China’s universities were proclaimed a key “ideological battleground”.
As a scholar of the Cultural Revolution, which is considered a highly sensitive topic in China, Sun was under particular scrutiny. After being questioned by the police and prevented from publishing her work, she joined a growing number of academics in leaving the country, believing it was the only way to continue her research. “I assume the history since 2012 has proved we have no reason for being optimistic about the future of China,” she told me from Cornell University in New York, where she is now based.
The domestic political environment has only worsened since. Xi has abolished term limits on the presidency and consolidated power in his own hands. At the party’s 20th congress this autumn, when by the example of his two predecessors he would be expected to step down, Xi will almost certainly embark on a third term and establish himself as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao.
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“In 2008, China tried its best to please the world and to show that it deserved to be recognised and respected as a great and strong nation,” Xu Guoqi of the University of Hong Kong said. “Now, with the 2022 Games, Xi will convey to the world that an assertive, confident and strong China has emerged. The world should learn to live with it and face the new reality.”
The very notion of a “coming out party” as it was characterised in 2008 suggested a country in transition. This time there will be no big reveal. The idea that the outside world could change China, the country’s ambassador to Washington said recently, was always “an illusion” and the message as the Games begin is clear: the days of seeking approval from the international community are over. China doesn’t just want to be part of the global order; it wants to shape it. These Olympics and future business will be conducted on Beijing’s terms.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under