BEIJING — Six years after it wowed the world with the Summer Olympics, China is mounting a strong push to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. In the past few weeks alone, Chinese leaders have announced deep-pocketed sponsors, unveiled a 2022 Olympics logo and taken journalists on tours of sprawling proposed venues.
But many of the challenges and objections to China’s bid — one of three left in the running — are not financial or logistical but moral.
Experts have pointed to international promises leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games — that such a prominent spotlight would temper the government’s authoritarian impulses, and improve human rights and the rule of law.
Many say the 2008 Games ultimately made little difference on those fronts, and in some areas, conditions have worsened in recent years.
Even contemplating another Olympics in China is “horrifying,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.
Before the 2008 Games, Beijing residents were evicted from certain areas and homes demolished to make way for new infrastructure. Activists were rounded up and imprisoned. The government enforced strict censorship and cracked down on Tibet and other areas of unrest.
Rather than improving human rights, the Beijing Games’ success “helped the regime to become more confident to do things its own way,” said Xu Guoqi, a University of Hong Kong historian and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.”
Such criticism has deterred neither China nor the International Olympic Committee.
Helping China’s chances, most other competitors have dropped out. Several gave up before the bid deadline, given the daunting cost of hosting the Games. That left six, but residents of Krakow, Poland, voted against making a bid this year. Stockholm similarly withdrew for lack of political support. And Ukraine, now in the midst of a near-civil war, took a pass.
So only three candidates were left when the IOC announced its finalists this summer. China’s two rivals are Kazakhstan — no paragon of human rights itself — and Norway, which might be a front-runner except that many Norwegians remain opposed to taking on the Games.
The faltering bids have sparked a reexamination in some Olympic circles.
Financing aside, the large amount of infrastructure to be built in a short period is daunting for many democratic countries that lack the authoritarian fiat to dictate projects, said Barry Sanders, a lawyer and chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games.
“With environmental impact reports, traffic studies, referenda, hearings and the like, that is very challenging,” he said.
China’s strong government should be viewed as a positive factor rather than as something negative, said Shen Dingli, an international affairs expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
With unchallenged control, the Chinese government can guarantee there will be no worker strikes or protests, for example. “Other countries can’t compete with China in this regard,” Shen said. If the city gets crowded, “the Chinese government can order the public to only come out to the streets on certain dates. It can even make the sky turn blue during the Olympic Games,” through chemical manipulation and emission restrictions, “even if the sky becomes gray again soon afterward.”
The Olympics have long wrestled with moral questions about host cities.
Organizers encountered them during Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
And the most recent Winter Games, in Sochi, garnered no small amount of consternation over Russia’s anti-gay laws, suppression of activists and thorough-going corruption.
The IOC has defended its choices of host nations, including China and Russia, saying the issue of human rights is one factor among many.
Anita DeFrantz, an American member of the IOC’s executive board, said she looks foremost at how the athletes will be treated, from facility safety to minute details such as dining options.
“They are the central factor,” she said. “Secondly, I look at how the host city affects the Games. And third, how the city will be affected by the Games.”
DeFrantz, a former Olympic rower, took issue with the suggestion — in light of this year’s dropped bids — that only authoritarian countries have the capacity to host anymore.
“We just finished Vancouver, London and are now heading into Brazil. Each bidding race is different, and you select from the pool you’re given,” she said.
“And as far as human rights, I’ve been told there were positive effects in China, such as child labor laws and a loosening of rules about where you can live and work,” she said — although experts argue that problems persist in both areas.
There are signs that IOC members are paying increasing attention to political factors such as human rights, said Robert Orttung, author of a forthcoming book on the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Russian President Vladmir Putin.
Orttung pointed to the seeming front-runner status of Turkey before protests last year appeared to sway the award of the 2020 Summer Games to Japan instead.
During a media tour this week of potential venues for a Beijing-hosted Winter Olympics, organizers stayed far away from sensitive topics such as human rights and focused largely on logistics.
Lacking large amounts of snow, Beijing plans to divide events among three locations — with ice sports in the capital, luge and bobsled events in mountains 55 miles away and most skiing events in another city altogether, Zhangjiakou, 136 miles away.
It took three hours to get to Zhangjiakou this week, through barren, dry terrain. Guides herded journalists into small neighboring towns to talk to villagers about how much economic benefit the Olympics might bring.
Although the 2008 Olympics were aimed at showing off the impressive national power of China, the tour on Wednesday and Thursday suggested that 2022 could involve a more pragmatic approach — using the Olympics to increase tourism and local economies.
Given the vast amount of money spent in 2008, and anticipating domestic grumbles about yet another vanity project, Chinese officials said they would use many of the existing venues and infrastructure from 2008 as a foundation for 2022.
A high-speed train route and highway, however, are planned to connect the three venues. And because of the problematic smog in 2008, Chinese officials say they are tightening regulations to reach acceptable levels by 2022.
With the official IOC decision still a year away, Beijing already has unveiled a 2022 logo, which combines Chinese calligraphy of the word for winter with various sports. And to drum up excitement with a promotional film, the government has turned again to Zhang Yimou, the director of its awe-inspiring 2008 opening and closing ceremonies.
But not everyone in China is enthusiastic.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, some users still recovering from 2008 have reacted to the hubbub with dread.
“I beg you, please don’t succeed; I am still hoping to live several years of peaceful life!” one user wrote.
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.