It’s a tale of two Olympics. Remember the 2008 Beijing Games? China was dazzling the world with its economic prowess and technological sophistication, determined to impress with its soft power. Praise filled the headlines in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States. "A perfect 10 in Beijing tonight,” opined the Sydney Morning Herald of the Opening Ceremonies. London’s Evening Standard described the event as “the beginning of China’s new era of greatness, witnessed — and implicitly approved — by much of the leadership of the planet.” And indeed, there was George W. Bush, the first American president to attend an Olympics in a foreign country, telling the press that the Beijing Games “exceeded my expectations.”
Compare that to the Beijing Winter Olympics that begin this week. Those same countries — the United States, Britain and Australia — have all announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games over human rights concerns. No major Western head of state is attending. The star of the show will be China’s ever-closer ally and satrap Vladimir Putin. The event itself is taking place without the usual screaming crowds and Olympic cheers. Traveling to China is nearly impossible due to the pandemic, and the government is barring most ordinary people from attending — all of which means that the stadiums and other venues are essentially TV studios, beaming out sports that are being played in front of near-empty arenas.
The covid-19 situation in China is a metaphor for one of the problems plaguing the country: its government’s rigidity. China handled the initial outbreak of covid brutally but effectively, achieving what in some ways is the world’s most successful pandemic containment strategy. The country has fewer than 5,000 reported covid deaths compared to America’s approximate 890,000. Putting aside the possibility of underreporting, the difference is staggering.
But, as many experts have noted, China now faces a real covid nightmare. Omicron spreads so easily and fast that pursuing a zero-covid policy is like putting a finger in a dike. And China’s vaccines do not appear to be very effective at preventing breakthrough omicron infections. Add to that the fact that, according to official reports, China’s 1.4 billion populace has had only about 120,000 confirmed cases, , meaning so-called natural or virus-induced immunity, is relatively low. Every January the Eurasia Group announces a list of the top 10 global risks. This year, China’s “zero covid policy” was number one.
There is a broader cost to China’s covid policy. It has cut the country off from the world. For the past two years, China’s president and many of its senior officials have not traveled abroad. Few diplomats and businesspeople go to the Middle Kingdom. Tourists have basically been banned. This is a major reversal from decades in which China reached out to the world and tried to integrate itself into global institutions. When Deng Xiaoping began China’s reforms, the phrase he used — so often that it became a mantra – was “reform and opening.” That “opening” feels like a distant memory now. Today, it’s crackdown and close up.
In some ways, covid highlights a central flaw in the Chinese model. Beijing can operate with ruthless efficiency, which often makes Western democratic policymaking appear chaotic and second rate. But when a dictator’s chosen policy needs to be changed, it is very hard for a dictatorship to correct course. The best example of this rigidity is China’s one-child policy, which gained momentum in the 1980s. A strategy that might have made some sense in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Chinese population growth was worrisome and the economy was faltering, proved counterproductive by the 1990s, when demographic vitality would have been an asset. But it took Beijing years to change; now, it appears, efforts to reverse the policy’s effects might be too late. Democracies, for all their flaws, can switch policy and policymakers with much greater ease.
In Washington these days, many look enviously at the Beijing government’s efficiency and its ability to use state power to generate economic growth. We wonder whether we need more direct industrial policy, with government picking national champions and protecting industries with tariffs and subsidies.
It might be worth taking a closer look at what is going on in China. Beijing has succeeded wildly in some areas, but that same government has made major mistakes, from persisting with the one-child policy to accumulating mountains of debt. The black box that is China’s government always looks more impressive from the outside. The United States’ openness and competition — economic, political, social — often looks chaotic, but over the centuries it has endured while many seemingly efficient models of government have failed.
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