The moon, Mars and the return of strongman rule: How China has changed since the 2008 Olympics

Travelers wait in line to board a high-speed train on Jan. 3 as they leave resort areas in China's northern Hebei province that will host ski and snowboard events at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The areas were closed off to all tourists and visitors on Jan. 4 as part of the bubble for athletes, journalists and officials taking part in the Games.
Travelers wait in line to board a high-speed train on Jan. 3 as they leave resort areas in China's northern Hebei province that will host ski and snowboard events at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The areas were closed off to all tourists and visitors on Jan. 4 as part of the bubble for athletes, journalists and officials taking part in the Games. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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When China first hosted the Olympics, the Summer Games in 2008, President George W. Bush flew in to cheer on the athletes, as foreign tourists wandered the streets of Beijing, marveling at the futuristic buildings.

This year, the Winter Olympics in Beijing will play out inside a bubble as the rest of China remains sealed off against the coronavirus. With U.S.-China relations tense, Washington has declined to send senior officials; Beijing has retorted that they weren’t invited anyway.

China has changed in many ways since the 2008 Games, which were widely seen as its coming-out party. The developing nation has become a full-fledged world power, reached the moon and Mars, and launched its first aircraft carrier. It has experienced dramatic societal transformations, including a return to strongman rule. Here are some of the landmarks:

Economy

In 2008, China was still an export-first country that was an afterthought as a consumer market for many international brands. Only one-fifth of the country was surfing the Web. The iPhone wasn’t sold in China until 2009, two years after its launch in the United States. WeChat, the app that serves as a Swiss army knife for daily life in China, did not exist until 2011.

China’s annual economic output has more than tripled since 2008. More than half of its economy is now driven by domestic consumption. The rise of China’s middle class has made its consumers a force to be reckoned with — and a bargaining chip that Beijing waves to keep foreign businesses in ideological line. In February 2021, President Xi Jinping announced that China had officially eradicated poverty. Beijing is now doubling down on narrowing the wealth gap, which has brought tightened regulation for the private sector and increased scrutiny for tycoons.

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Perhaps the most striking transformation has been the explosive growth of China’s mobile economy. In 2008, smartphones were a luxury out of reach for most of the nation’s people. Today, smartphone ownership is virtually a necessity to survive in Chinese cities, with mobile QR codes used for pandemic health-status tracking, and a growing number of retailers only accepting mobile payments, not cash.

The past few years have seen the beginning of a decoupling between China’s economy and the West, as Beijing and Western governments have mutually become wary of the security risks of depending on the other’s technology and supply chains. Washington has moved to limit the influence of Chinese tech firms such as Huawei, which briefly peaked as the world’s No. 1 smartphone vendor in 2020 before being forced to largely exit the smartphone business because of U.S. sanctions. The prevailing trend is not globalization but self-sufficiency.

Politics

One of the most dramatic shifts in China since 2008 has been the return to strongman rule without term limits under Xi. When he came to power in 2012, many observers predicted he might increase civil liberties and make China a bit more like Western democracies. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Starting with a corruption crackdown that took out his political rivals, Xi swiftly consolidated power and overrode the previous template of collective rule. In 2018, Chinese lawmakers amended the constitution to remove the two-term presidential limit, setting Xi up for a widely expected third term as Communist Party general secretary to begin later this year (with his third presidential term beginning early next year).

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Xi has emphasized ideological loyalty for Communist Party members, prompting nationwide Marxist study sessions and public declarations of loyalty that have drawn comparisons with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. This ideological crackdown reached its harshest form in the northwest Xinjiang region, where local officials were imprisoned for perceived disloyalty, and a wide swath of the ethnic Uyghur population was detained.

On the international stage, Xi has encouraged Chinese diplomats to become “wolf warriors” to aggressively defend the nation’s interests. Beijing has increasingly clashed with Western governments over its policies toward Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with China inflicting economic retaliation on countries that don’t fall in line.

The coronavirus pandemic has also contributed to tensions between China and the West, partly because of China’s lack of transparency over early events in Wuhan, where the first cases were detected. China has virtually sealed its borders since the start of the pandemic, and locked down tens of millions of people at a time in its quest to reach “zero covid.”

Military and space

Four years after the 2008 Olympics, Xi came to power and began a military expansion program. Since then, China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea has become a visible symbol of Beijing’s military ambition. China has created 3,200 acres of new land in waters to its south that are closer to the Philippines and Vietnam than to the Chinese mainland. Aerial photos of the man-made islands show missile systems, radars and runways capable of handling military aircraft.

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China has notched a number of other firsts in its military and space programs since 2008. In 2012, it launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning — a recommissioned Soviet-era vessel from the 1980s — as part of an extensive upgrade of the navy. The next year, China landed its first lunar rover, and in 2019 it landed humankind’s first rover on the far side of the moon. Last year, China landed a rover on Mars, making it the only country to do so besides the United States; Beijing is seeking to send its first crewed mission to Mars in 2033.

In recent months, China’s testing of hypersonic missiles has drawn international attention and prompted a scramble in the United States to fund development of similar weapons.

Freedoms

As a sign of goodwill ahead of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing lifted its bans on Wikipedia and YouTube, and loosened some restrictions on foreign journalists. A lot has changed since then. Since Xi came to power, his government has steadily tightened restrictions on speech, political protest and the media.

The rise of China’s mobile economy ushered in a new era of high-tech surveillance of the population, as online censors and the security apparatus increasingly tracked people’s digital footprints. In recent years, police have even begun to prosecute individuals based solely on political comments they made in private texts to friends. Such a level of digital surveillance was unfeasible in 2008.

One of the most dramatic changes has come in Hong Kong, which in 2008 was still home to a vibrant civil society and an outspoken press that was frequently critical of Beijing. Since then, Hong Kong has taken an authoritarian turn, imprisoning pro-democracy activists and forcing the closure of media institutions such as the Apple Daily newspaper.

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A harsh campaign in the Xinjiang region starting in 2017 that targeted members of the Uyghur ethnic minority also sparked international alarm, with residents reporting confiscated passports, police interrogations involving torture, and detention without trial for ideological reeducation.

Washington has designated the events in Xinjiang a genocide, and the crackdown prompted a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics by a number of nations including the United States, Australia, Britain and Canada. Beijing has largely dug in its heels in response to international criticism, though it has reined in some policies, such as closing some of the “reeducation centers” in Xinjiang and beginning to regulate private-sector use of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies.

Infrastructure

As the 2008 Olympics opened, China’s infrastructure boom was just beginning. Beijing had scrambled to remake the city into a world-class venue for the event, including building a massive new airport terminal that it touted as the world’s largest man-made structure by area covered. It added iconic buildings to its skyline, including two futuristic-looking sports centers — the Beijing National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, respectively known as the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube.” China also finished its first high-speed rail line, a 73-mile stretch connecting Beijing to the neighboring port city Tianjin, to coincide with the 2008 Games.

Since then, China’s whirlwind building has continued, funded in part by a massive stimulus package (again, the world’s biggest) to alleviate the 2008 financial crisis. China now has the world’s largest network of high-speed rails, and the most highways in the world, after a paving spree in which it added more than 6,000 miles of highway each year since 2011. China’s 16 tallest skyscrapers were all completed in 2008 or after, including the tallest, the 128-floor Shanghai Tower, which opened in 2015. Despite the emergence of some “ghost cities” because of over-construction, China’s economy hasn’t collapsed from the debt-fueled building.

The build-out hasn’t just been domestic. In 2013, Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar global infrastructure-building program that encompasses hydropower dams in Cambodia and Pakistan, railways in Uzbekistan and Nigeria, ports in Sri Lanka and Djibouti, and much more. The sprawling project is a centerpiece of Xi’s foreign policy and has prompted much international discussion of how Beijing may use it to enhance its global sway.

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