- Stephen McDonnell
- BBC correspondent from Beijing
Beijing is set 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, the mood of the people, the attitude of the government, the expectations of the nations of the world are all different than before.
I participated in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and still live in the Chinese capital. By 2022, the atmosphere will definitely be very different.
Of course, the Summer Olympics always get more attention than the Winter Olympics because more countries are investing in it. By the way, the new crown is a major factor in the infection.
As for China, a country that has officially pledged to pursue a “zero” strategy is unlikely to host the “normal” Winter Olympics as a new crown epidemic erupts in cities around Beijing.
One consequence is that tickets to the game are not available to the public.
Instead, state-owned companies or other party and government organizations distribute tickets to their members, who must comply with strict anti-epidemic measures, including isolation before and after watching the game and multiple nucleic acid tests.
However, even though the new crown is not contagious, today’s China is not the China of 2008.
In 2008, the hellish scene began when a winter blizzard swept across southern China. Then a monk-led uprising erupted in Tibet, which was followed by a devastating earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan, which killed 70,000 people.
At the time, the Wenchuan earthquake and the desperate flow of rescuers to find survivors provoked 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 growing economy, new architectural masterpieces, prosperous and interesting cities, and a community that had become more open. Art shows, underground bands and foreign ideas are on the rise.
By 2022, the country’s new leadership already has different priorities.
Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China’s approach to global sentiment is similar: we experienced a century of humiliation in the 20th century, our time has come, and when it takes our rightful place on the world stage, it must be yours. Others are coming to comfort us.
China “moves forward” in 2008
After the bloody repression in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing lost the bid to host the 2000 Olympics and was destroyed by Sydney.
Officials announced the changes to protect China from advancing to protect the 2008 Olympics.
One of the changes is the easing of travel restrictions on interviews with foreign journalists. Prior to that, journalists wishing to travel anywhere in China had to obtain permission from the local government.
In 2008, a group of reporters and I spoke with Qin Gang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who is now the Chinese ambassador to the United States.
We asked him if the rules governing journalists would return to the old way once the Olympics were over.
“Impossible,” Kin Kang said with a smile, following the moving motion of a car. “China has only one gear and it needs to move forward.”
I really felt that way at the time.
Moreover, China has clearly made progress on many fronts. If you go to Beijing for the last Olympics and come back now, you will see a lot of differences.
For example, the city’s transportation infrastructure exploded.
In 2008, there were only four lines in Beijing’s tunnel system, and two new routes and an airport route were added before the Olympics. Now, with 27 lines and 459 stations – and counts – Beijing has grown to become the world’s largest subway network.
Space disappearing in 2022
However, if returnees dig a little deeper, some will say that tolerance for content other than the CCP-approved ideology has significantly decreased and that it is disappearing.
In recent weeks, some dissidents have been pressing not to stir up trouble when the eyes of the world are on China. This also happened in 2008. The difference now is that there are not many intellectuals or human rights lawyers who need to be silent anymore, they have been around for a long time.
Even ordinary academics are afraid to interview because their comments may be considered disrespectful to their own country.
In fact, the group of intellectuals considered to be the cause of the problem was not controlled long before group sharing on WeChat, China’s most important social media.
Zhang Yihe is one of them. He told the BBC: “I was angry at first because I could not hear my voice. Then I realized that anger was useless and would only harm my health.”
He said he did not expect the new restrictions on himself and others to be relaxed after the Olympics because of the sport.
That alone has not changed.
Before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing had a unique, unrestricted nightlife. You can be sure that any foreign viewer will be amazed by this dynamic scene. All this was going on at the time.
To date, there is still plenty to choose from in the metropolis, but the endless demolition has destroyed many small, creative stores.
I recently talked 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 so different. I had a lot of foreign friends back then.”
At the time, architects were the hot cake of the city. The Escher-style CCTV new building, with its beautiful domed National Grand Theater, has opened up to several spectacular new buildings up to Terminal 3, such as the capital airport’s dragon.
The Olympic grounds are breathtaking.
Wild artist I Weiwe was involved as a consultant in the design of the national arena known as the “Bird’s Nest”.
I remember interviewing him at the time, his vision of the future of the city in terms of the birdcage and all the other striking world-class buildings and sophisticated architecture in the capital.
“No, no, it’s over,” he said.
“That window, that moment is now over,” he said.
The artist, currently in exile, closed the space for bold artistic expression in architecture before the end of the 2008 Olympics.
I was skeptical at the time, but by 2014 Xi Jinping had publicly stated at a major cultural seminar that he had enough “different buildings”.
But soon, the world’s focus on the bird ‘nest hosting the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics will return.
The reduction in the number of government delegates to the Winter Olympics in the wake of allegations of human rights abuses – particularly in the case of Uyghur human rights abuses in Xinjiang – has provoked a diplomatic backlash.
Just as Beijing has become harsher on other governments in recent years, some foreign governments have taken a tougher stance on China.
People are reluctant to turn a blind eye to the CCP’s aggression against its own citizens.
How will people look at the 2022 Winter Olympics?
At least to some extent, the cultural vision of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics will continue. Director Zhang Yimo is back in charge.
He was accused by some of being a traitor for his harsh films about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Forward that allegedly killed millions of people by famine. But he received great praise for the visual extravaganza he presented at the 2008 Olympics.
He may think that the Olympics provide another canvas to show China’s past and future.
Given that China has a very different place in the world, it will be fascinating to see what he has brought to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. This could affect how the entire world looks at the Winter Olympics.
It will be a TV show. Tickets cannot be purchased because it is too cold. Only foreign competitors and staff attending the event here, they can only see everything in Beijing’s largest closed ring for epidemic prevention.
All of these factors shape the future of this Winter Olympics.
But for the government, which is worried that something untoward will happen, it would be reassuring if the Winter Olympics were a home-watched sporting event.