Mind Games: how China’s confidence soared between two Olympics | China

Spectacular fireworks lit up the summer season sky and the air stuffed with the scent of sulphur as trails of smoke descended on the crowds in Tiananmen Sq.. The throng cheered enthusiastically. “Go Beijing, go China, go Olympics,” they chanted. The collective pleasure was palpable.

It was shortly after the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer season Olympics, which started at 8.08pm native time on 8 August 2008; the Chinese language consider eight is an auspicious quantity. That night, Chinese language-American Kaiser Kuo was watching from the balcony of his house in japanese Beijing. “It was meant to be spectacular, and watching as a Chinese language individual, it definitely was: all of the pageantry of historical past, the flawless performances, the grand scale,” Kuo says.

“However watching by way of my western eyes, this spectacular occasion additionally performed into a way of worry: the robotic juggernaut and machine-like rise. It was intimidating.”

Fourteen years later, China is staging its second Olympics when the Winter Video games open on 4 February in Beijing. However the worldwide context and far of the temper music surrounding the occasion could be very totally different this time.


The 2008 Video games have been a symbolic second for China, each as a competitor (sport had lengthy been a method to reclaim wounded nationwide pleasure) and for the picture the occasion projected to the world. The Chinese language capital underwent an enormous facelift after profitable the bid in 2001 as roads have been repaved and subway traces added. Authorities amassed 400,000 English-speaking volunteers to organize for the inflow of foreigners.

The theme music of the Video games spoke to this reinvented and reinvigorated China displaying itself to the world: Beijing Welcomes You. For a lot of, the Olympic slogan, “One world, one dream”, was an indication that China’s convergence with the remainder of the world was inevitable.

Expectations have been exceeded, with China profitable 51 gold medals and – for the primary time – unseating the US, which received 36. The New York Instances referred to as the twenty ninth Olympiad China’s “popping out occasion, a present of its rising financial and political energy and its re-emergence as a worldwide energy”.

Basketball star Yao Ming leads the Chinese delegation at the opening ceremony in 2008.
Basketball star Yao Ming leads the Chinese language delegation on the opening ceremony in 2008. {Photograph}: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Pictures

Jacques Rogge, the then president of the Worldwide Olympic Committee, mentioned: “The world has discovered about China, and China has discovered in regards to the world, and I consider that is one thing that may have optimistic results for the long run.”

The 2008 and the 2022 Olympics will each have taken place throughout epoch-defining international occasions and shifts in China’s relations with the west. The 2008 Video games coincided with the beginnings of the monetary disaster and symbolised China’s recognition on the world stage; the 2022 Video games will happen throughout the Covid pandemic and are already overshadowed by the rising boycotts from western capitals.

Within the months main as much as each Video games, rights organisations seized on the event to spotlight the therapy of Tibetans and Uyghurs in addition to Chinese language dissidents. They referred to as for a boycott. In March 2008, protesters in Greece disturbed a high-security ceremony to gentle the Olympic flame. This month, a London-based unofficial tribunal concluded China was committing “genocide” in its western area of Xinjiang. Beijing’s response to each developments was livid.

Just a few days earlier than the 2008 Video games occurred, the US Home of Representatives handed a decision, by 419 votes to 1, condemning China’s document on human rights and was accused by the Chinese language international ministry of making an attempt to “sabotage the Olympics”. The sharp tone has been related within the run-up to the Winter Video games, but this time the criticism has been backed by extra concerted motion: the US has staged a diplomatic boycott, with a few of its allies following swimsuit.

In 2008, the US’s China coverage was nonetheless dominated by the concept of “engagement”. China was seen as having launched into a “peaceable rise” and, regardless of repeated allegations of rights violations, Washington believed China would ultimately liberalise. So, on his final journey to Asia earlier than touchdown in Beijing to attend the Video games that summer season, the then US president, George W Bush, advised an viewers in Thailand that whereas Washington would “stand in agency opposition” to repression in China, “change in China will arrive by itself phrases and in step with its personal historical past and its personal traditions. But change will arrive.”

Just a few weeks earlier, he told departing US athletes within the White Home Rose Backyard that “Laura and I sit up for becoming a member of you for the Olympics. I’m fired as much as go.”

George and Laura Bush watch the swimming at the Beijing Games with their daughter Barbara
George and Laura Bush watch the swimming on the Beijing Video games with their daughter Barbara. {Photograph}: Cameron Spencer/Getty Pictures

That optimism from Washington has evaporated, and 2008 was a turning level, says David Ownby, a China historian on the Université de Montréal, who writes a extensively learn weblog, Reading the China Dream. “The distinction between the fantastically executed Beijing Video games and the chaos created by the totally avoidable monetary disaster satisfied many Chinese language that China was a serious participant,” he says.

“Since then, the final temper is that China weathers crises higher than the west,” he provides, pointing to issues precipitated within the west by the European refugee disaster, Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, the 6 January US Capital riot, and the pandemic.

A month after the 2008 Video games occurred, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The US authorities bailed out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – two enormous corporations that had assured 1000’s of sub-prime mortgages, within the greatest rescue operation because the credit score crunch started the earlier 12 months.


The fallout of the monetary disaster was not simply financial, however made clear the truth of a much less western-centric world order. Within the phrases of the historian Adam Tooze in his ebook Crashed: How a Decade of Monetary Crises Modified the World: “Because the appalling scope and scale of the crash was revealed, the monetary establishments that had symbolised the west’s triumph because the finish of the chilly conflict appeared – by way of greed, malice and incompetence – to be about to carry the complete system to its knees.”

The monetary disaster emboldened China’s confidence in its personal system of financial administration. That November, the then Chinese language premier, Wen Jiabao, introduced an unprecedented 4tn yuan (then £375bn) stimulus package deal, triple the dimensions of the US’s effort. In Wen’s phrases, the package deal was “large, quick and efficient”.

The deal propelled China’s GDP progress even on the time of a worldwide disaster. And whereas it additionally introduced complications for Beijing as straightforward credit score fuelled inflation, the nation’s ’s sturdy progress led it to surpass Germany to turn out to be the most important exporting nation in 2009, and within the following 12 months exchange Japan because the second-largest financial system on the earth.

An aerial view of the Yangshan container port in Shanghai
An aerial view of the Yangshan container port in Shanghai. {Photograph}: AP

In Washington, China was reluctantly seen as a saviour of the US financial system. On her first journey to Asia lower than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stopped by Beijing. She persuaded Wen to buy extra American sovereign debt. However she additionally later acknowledged the dilemma this posed for the US. After coming back from Asia, she requested the then Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd: “How do you deal toughly together with your banker?”

Some consider the monetary disaster and its incremental fallout over the following decade precipitated a shift in China’s international identification and technique. “[20]08 started this reckoning [in China] with the concept possibly america is definitely weakening,” said Rush Doshi, Joe Biden’s China director within the Nationwide Safety Council this summer season.

Chinese language perceptions of western weak point are additionally underlined by the surge within the research of western populism in Chinese language academia lately, Doshi added. “There’s simply a lot consideration and research on western populism in that interval as a result of they see there’s one thing essentially compromising the flexibility of presidency to work. They could be mistaken about that evaluation, however that’s their evaluation.”

Vincent Ni reporting on the Beijing Olympics for CBC/Radio-Canada
Vincent Ni reporting on the Beijing Olympics for CBC/Radio-Canada. {Photograph}: Vincent Ni

Blended with the rethink of its personal identification, there was one other seen change in China across the Beijing Video games, says Kuo, who left China in 2016 after 20 years there. With the exponential progress in web customers yearly, the Chinese language started to precise themselves – generally critically of the federal government – whereas studying about what the English-language worldwide press was saying about their nation for the primary time.

“More often than not they didn’t agree with the international press’s protection of China. And it was then that the Chinese language started preventing with westerners on-line within the feedback part of on-line publications, together with the Guardian’s,” Kuo provides. “It was additionally then when on-line nationalism started to emerge.”

China has had its personal dramas because the 2008 Video games. First, the massive stimulus package deal unleashed that 12 months triggered warnings from economists of China’s personal debt disaster. Then in 2012, earlier than Xi Jinping took workplace, a top-level scandal involving Bo Xilai, a rising political star, despatched shock waves by way of the ruling Communist occasion and the nation.

After Xi got here to energy in 2013, his anti-corruption marketing campaign took down officers as senior as a former member of the politburo standing committee. In 2018, Xi scrapped presidential time period limits, a transfer that alarmed western capitals. In the meantime, regardless of the west’s condemnation of China’s therapy of its Uyghur inhabitants and Hong Kong protesters, Beijing has doubled down on its insurance policies.

Albert Leung, the Hong Kong lyricist who wrote the 2008 Beijing Welcomes You theme, is now not welcome to carry out on the mainland after being accused of supporting pro-democracy protesters within the former British colony in 2014. Ai Weiwei, who was concerned in designing the Chicken’s Nest stadium the place the grand opening ceremony occurred, resides in exile in Europe.

Hong Kong protesters in 2014 open umbrellas for 87 seconds, marking 87 rounds of teargas fired by the police.
Hong Kong protesters in 2014 open umbrellas for 87 seconds, marking 87 rounds of teargas fired by the police. {Photograph}: Alex Hofford/EPA

Parallel to those occasions inside China, the west has additionally modified considerably within the decade main as much as the 2022 Video games. Within the UK, the Brexit vote in 2016 marked a turning level in Britain’s relations with the skin world and sowed home division, puzzling many Chinese language. Within the US, the election of Trump additionally highlighted home tensions, whereas his China coverage amplified the cracks between Beijing and the west and turned an already fraught diplomatic relationship right into a zero-sum geopolitical contest.

However maybe extra crucially, the Covid pandemic has strengthened Chinese language leaders’ confidence within the nation’s political system. “Judging from how this pandemic is being dealt with by totally different leaderships and [political] programs world wide, [we can] clearly see who has performed higher,” Xi advised his cadres 5 days after an offended mob besieged the US Capitol on 6 January. “Time and historical past are on our facet, and that is the place our conviction and resilience lie, and why we’re so decided and assured.”

“In 2008, China was crying out to be recognised. It wished to indicate its wealth, cosmopolitanism in addition to friendliness,” says Xu Guoqi, a historian at Hong Kong College and creator of the ebook Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008. “These days, China desires to indicate its assertiveness. Some within the nation go so far as to – maybe mistakenly – counsel that the east is rising and the west is falling. Therefore, in response to [recent] diplomatic boycotts, Beijing mentioned: ‘No person cares.’”

Kuo, who now hosts a China-focused podcast called Sinica from the US, says it’s onerous for him to see how China and the west get out of this safety dilemma. “I really feel a way of despair,” he says. “For a few years of my life, as we noticed issues converging, I used to be very a lot inspired. Now, I’ve been very depressed about it. I’ve nearly skilled it as a private failing.”

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