A year from now, Beijing will host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Beijing 2022 coincides with the Chinese Lunar New Year, and we can expect pageantry and pride as China invites the world to share in the dual spectacle.
Next year is also the Year of the Tiger, an apt metaphor for Beijing 2022. While tigers are brave and confident, they are also unpredictable and quick to anger. Acknowledge the tiger’s authority and be permitted to survive; transgress its lair and beware of the consequences.
Beijing 2022 will take place not only under the shadow of Covid-19, but as the most politically charged Olympics since the 1936 Berlin Games in Nazi Germany.
And under what circumstances can the Games even be held? Will they serve as a beacon of hope after two years of the worst pandemic the world has seen since 1918?
This article takes a look at Beijing 2022’s prospects, security concerns, implications for major stakeholders, and risks associated with the event and beyond.
2008 versus 2022
If the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games marked the re-emergence and acceptance of China on the world stage, Beijing 2022 is shaping up to be the most controversial Olympics since the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.
Former IOC president Jacque Rogge praised Beijing 2008 as a “truly exceptional Games,” and we can expect similar execution for Beijing 2022. Brand new stadiums, a new high-speed rail line, a literal army of smiling, bilingual and charismatic volunteers, and even blue skies will greet visitors and athletes alike.
Let us not forget, however, that Beijing 2008 was not without its flaws. Over a million Beijngers were forcibly relocated; dissidents were rounded up; and the legacy of the protest-ridden Olympic Torch Relay was the cancellation of the overseas portion of the relay in subsequent Olympics.
Beijing 2022 will not be business as usual. The Covid-19 pandemic casts doubt as to how the Games will be held, and it is looking more and more like international spectators may not be allowed, especially given China’s clampdown on recent Covid outbreaks.
China must also confront a perfect storm of geopolitical tensions and growing calls for a boycott over its deteriorating human rights record, with the US State Department labeling as “genocide” China’s repressive policies toward its Uighur minority.
And while – due to President Biden’s penchant for conciliation – there probably will not be a boycott of Beijing 2022 it is difficult to imagine that 80 state leaders and royal figures will choose to attend the opening ceremony as they did for Beijing 2008.
Focus on Chinese audience
Beijing will be the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. This milestone will mark China’s transition from a nascent to a bona-fide superpower; from Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “hide your strength and bide your time” to Xi Jinping’s call for the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”
Beijing 2022 will showcase China’s modernity and organizational prowess as it attempts to increase its standing and legitimacy in not only the eyes of the world, but also, and more importantly, in the eyes of its own people.
As an auxiliary benefit, China also hopes to use Beijing 2022 as a catalyst for 300 million people to take up winter sports, and for China to become a global sporting superpower.
China is already feeling self-assured as the political turmoil and social unrest in the US along with as the West’s muddled response to Covid-19 have only served to solidify its belief that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is superior to the Western liberal order.
And with 2021 seeing the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing 2022 has been planned to provide fodder for China’s propagandists for years to come.
China and the IOC
It is ironic that the International Olympic Committee – an organization founded by European aristocrats – has a symbiotic relationship with the CCP. The IOC covets China’s financial and political support, while China indulges the IOC fantasy that the Olympics are a non-political event.
They are both resolutely against any attempts to politicize the Games. The boycott issue is personal to former gold medalist and current IOC President Thomas Bach, as he was denied a chance to defend his fencing title by the boycott of Moscow 1980.
Bach has stated that he did not want the Olympics to become a “marketplace of demonstrations,” while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has said that politicizing sports “goes against the spirit of the Olympic Charter and disrupts and jeopardizes the progress of the global human rights cause.”
China and the IOC are also unified in upholding the IOC’s Rule 50 banning demonstrations at any Olympic site or venue. This rule is clearly out of sync with demands for social justice in our politicized world, and the US Olympic Committee has gone so far as to announce that it will no longer punish athletes who participate in peaceful protests. Sebastian Coe, the British politician and four-time Olympic medalist who is the current President of World Athletics, has also reportedly clashed with the IOC leadership regarding Rule 50.
China’s approach to security is an extension of its Covid-19 strategy: namely, to isolate, trace and eliminate anything of consequence that is at odds with its interests. China uses its impressive AI and social media monitoring prowess to detect and isolate non-conformity and dissent. The authorities then trace those involved and neutralize or eliminate the virus – or, in this case, the perceived threat.
China will utilize a range of law enforcement, defense, customs, intelligence agencies and volunteers under the aegis of the Ministry of Public Security (PSB) to protect Beijing 2022.
In broad terms, the police will handle security in and around venues, and contracted personnel will carry out non-policing security tasks such as access and crowd control. Emergency response agencies will deal with any first aid needs or other emergencies.
Volunteers will play a supporting role, including monitoring street traffic, patroling communities and alerting the PSB to anything or anyone suspicious. The paramilitary People’s Armed Police and the People’s Liberation Army will also have a large presence, mainly as a counter-terrorism deterrent, but also in the unlikely case of civil unrest or a terrorist incident.
As regards cybersecurity, there is no expectation of privacy in China. The Chinese government has the capability to monitor phones, tablets, and computers connected to the Internet, and they regularly monitor private email and internet browsing.
China’s view of the situation is simple; as long as you do not engage in behavior that challenges China’s interests, you have nothing to worry about.
For China, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan remain the holy trinity of security concerns, and thus such topics should be avoided unless you are willing to risk Beijing’s ire.
Warning to journalists
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China has reported that a record 17 foreign journalists were expelled from the country in the first half of 2020.
To gain an understanding of the current atmosphere for journalists, one should listen to a recent interview with Anna Fifield, the former Beijing Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, on the day of her departure from China:
“It has just become pretty impossible to [report] in China today. Now there is so much government control and fear among ordinary people at speaking to foreign media and especially American media … that I’ve found that people will not talk anymore…. It increasingly feels like living in North Korea.”
She goes on to say that she wouldn’t currently travel to China if she were American, Australian, Canadian or even British due to concerns over arbitrary detention. While this assertion is an exaggeration as concerns the average foreign national – as most international businesses and schools in China are operating as usual – journalists in China do have targets on their backs.
Dilemma for sponsors
The return on investment of an Olympic sponsorship is notoriously hard to quantify in even the best of times, and the challenges of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 have undoubtedly damaged corporations’ multi-million dollar sponsorships and the Olympic brand.
In addition to decimated corporate hospitality and in-person marketing programs due to Covid-19, sponsors have become prime targets for activists, and will also need to navigate a fine line to ensure the health and safety of their guests and staff.
Sponsors are also at the mercy of last minute Chinese government directives that can disrupt even the best laid plans. During Beijing 2008, for example, the Beijing immigration authorities actively discouraged visitors to China by effectively halting the issuance of tourist and business visas.
This was especially ironic given that the theme song for Beijing 2008 was “Beijing Welcomes You.”
Training and test events
One also has to feel sorry for the thousands of athletes with Olympic aspirations who in the pandemic environment have had difficulty training, and who will also be denied the opportunity to practice at the Beijing 2022 venues.
International test events that are designed to ensure the safety and quality of the venues for Beijing 2022 have been canceled, to be replaced by testing programs that will be conducted solely by Chinese officials and athletes.
Foreign athletes will thus be at a competitive disadvantage, as they will only be able to see and feel the Olympic venues a few days before the Games commence.
The show must go on
All eyes will be on Tokyo 2020 as a harbinger for how Beijing 2022 will be held six months hence; and the lack of specificity with the Tokyo Olympics has resulted in a similar vagueness with regard to Beijing.
And while one must believe the IOC at face value when they say that they will put the health and safety of athletes first, there is too much money and face at stake to permit any Olympic cancelation.
Broadcasting rights make up three-quarters of the IOC’s over $4 billion dollars of revenue per each four-year Olympic cycle, with another 18% coming from sponsors. Regardless of whether any spectators attend, the IOC will meet its financial goals as long as the Games are broadcast.
The true economic impact of a curtailed Olympics falls on the host city, with the already battered hospitality industry expected to bear the major brunt of revenue shortfalls.
Limping across the finish line
The Chinese saying “tóng chuáng yì mèng” (同床异梦) means “same bed, different dreams,” and is an appropriate metaphor for the current state of affairs between China and the international community.
China is the master of mega-events, and knows how to wow even the most jaded of international travelers and business executives. But despite the veneer of normality that the pageantry of Beijing 2022 will provide, the Games will take place under an oppressive security blanket in a time of unprecedented crisis.
The IOC’s brand has been damaged. Future Games, starting with Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028, will present host cities and countries with security nightmares, gentrification issues, calls for social justice and lackadaisical popular support.
Let us thus have high hopes but low expectations for Beijing 2022 and beyond. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised.
Howard Snyder is currently Asia project manager for TorchStone Global, a boutique US security firm. He was security manager for a TOP sponsor at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games and the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, and has lived in Asia for over 30 years. He speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese.