Two cheers for the Olympics, newly re-awarded to this big, bustling, smog-clogged city.
The last time Beijing was selected to host the Olympics, in 2001 for the 2008 Summer Games, ebullient locals burst into the public squares, cheering and singing. The response here this time around, after Friday’s announcement of the city’s selection for the 2022 Winter Games, was slightly less . . . euphoric.
Sure, there were some “spontaneous” celebrations, in which hordes of dancers just happened to show up in identical costumes performing synchronized moves conveniently in view of nearby state-run TV station cameras. But in Sanlitun and other oft-raucous neighborhoods, whatever revelries occurred were more subdued. If they occurred at all. (Disclosure: I’m here on a trip paid for by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, which is based in Hong Kong.)
Explanations abound for the underwhelming response. Maybe the prevalence of social media atomized the celebrations by giving people other, cellphone-bound outlets for their effusion. Maybe locals just aren’t that into winter sports. Maybe hosting the biggest international sporting event is old hat by now, especially when there’s so little competition from other cities (or in this case, city, singular: Almaty, Kazakhstan, was the only other contender for the 2022 Winter Games).
Or maybe Beijingers just have other things on their minds, given the economic slowdown and the recent plunge in the stock market.
For some Chinese, though, recent history may provide a more compelling reason to curb their enthusiasm about hosting another global sporting event.
Last time Beijing was selected as the host city, there were, understandably, concerns about China’s checkered human rights record. But China’s leaders promised that the event would lead to reforms. Staging the Games, the secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee assured the world, would “not only promote our economy but also enhance all social conditions, including education, health and human rights.”
This seemed plausible. The eyes of the world would be upon China, after all; what choice would its government have but to respect human rights? The then-president of the International Olympic Committee even pledged to step in “if either security, logistics or human rights are not acted upon to our satisfaction.” But as the Games approached, both China and the IOC broke their promises. Rather than protecting free speech and human rights, as guaranteed by China’s constitution, the Chinese government unleashed a wave of political repression in the name of promoting Olympic harmony. AIDS activist Hu Jia was one of many dissidents thrown into prison in the months leading up to the Games. As was Yang Chunlin, who was sentenced to five years after organizing a petition saying, “We want human rights, not the Olympics.” Huang Qi, who wrote about the victims of the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008, got three years. Land rights activists Wang Guilin and Yu Changwu were sentenced to “re-education through labor.” Many others met similar fates.
In other words, an event many hoped would lead to reform had instead precipitated a crackdown. And when human rights advocates urged the IOC to pressure the Chinese government to stop using the Games to legitimize further abuses, the organization shrugged. The eyes of the world may have been directed toward China, but they remained shut.
This indifference set a precedent that emboldened other harsh regimes staging international sporting events, including Russia, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup. This is especially troubling given that authoritarian regimes are increasingly the only states willing to host these athletic boondoggles, since citizens who actually have a say in choosing their leadership are less willing to tolerate spending billions on spectacles and stadiums.
Not only did the IOC ignore the Chinese government’s human rights violations, but it has also now effectively endorsed such abuses by handing Beijing the honor of hosting again.
So it is reasonable to think that anyone who cares about human rights may be wary about giving Beijing yet another excuse to stamp out dissent. Of course, thanks to social media, it has become more difficult to plug the spigot of ideas and information since 2008. But my sincere hope is that the government will also actively choose to be more tolerant of free speech and government critics in the years leading up to its next Olympic honor. Granting artist Ai Weiwei permission to travel last week — before the 2022 host city was announced — was a good start.
It’s still not too late for China’s leadership to make good on the promise it made to the world, and its people, in 2001. Indeed, that would be a development worth celebrating.