What Does China Stand to Gain by Hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics?

Patrick Beyrer and Morgan Peirce

On February 4, the Olympic torch will make its way to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, kicking off the 2022 Winter Olympics. Much has changed since China last hosted the Olympics in 2008, when the international community welcomed Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics and Beijing cast the events as a symbol of the nation’s “rejuvenation” and China’s entrance into a “Glorious Era.” Beijing 2022 comes as the Chinese government has seized tighter political control and China’s human rights violations have spurred a growing international backlash. With the world’s eyes again turned to Beijing for the Winter Olympics, what does China stand to gain by hosting the Games in the midst of rising political tensions, and will their efforts succeed?

In the past, China sought to use the Olympic Games to convince other nations that China has an effective governance system and deserves a prominent place in the international order. In 2008, China mobilized massive amounts of labor and capital to present an open and benevolent face to the rest of the world. Hopes were high among Chinese citizens that this strategy would pay dividends. Polling from 2008 indicates that Chinese citizens around the world were almost unanimous in their confidence that the Beijing Olympics would change the way their country was viewed internationally. However, the 2008 Olympic Games had a moderate effect on boosting the approval of the Chinese government and economy internationally, arguably demonstrating the limits of China’s soft power.

Beijing’s vision for the 2022 Olympic Games is not fundamentally different from 2008, but the stakes are higher. Amidst the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, complaints of human rights abuses, and sexual assault allegations in the Chinese sports world, the 2022 Olympic Games are a platform not just to reaffirm China’s authoritarian governance system, but to prove its superiority to the world and the Chinese people.

In terms of successful Covid-19 prevention, hosting the Winter Olympics without a Covid flare-up would potentially reassert the efficacy of China’s pandemic protocols internationally. As the pandemic continues to surge and the Omicron variant rips through other countries at an “unprecedented rate,” top officials at Zhongnanhai aspire to stage Beijing 2022 as a public health success in contrast to other nations’ inability to handle Covid-19 cases.

China also seeks to use Beijing 2022 to buttress China’s status as a global economic and technological power. China has invested a gargantuan USD 3.9 billion in Olympic infrastructure and has announced that all 26 athletic venues will be powered by green energy. In this way, infrastructure success at the Olympics will be symbolic of China’s desire to establish itself as a high-technology innovator in the global economy.

But arguably chief among Beijing’s goals in hosting the 2022 Olympic Games is cultivating national pride at home. Xi Jinping’s “Olympic promises” seek grassroots support through job creation, infrastructure development, and athletic exchange—all strategies to garner the widespread support of the Chinese people.

In 2008, there was a greater global willingness to cooperate with China and integrate it into international institutions, especially in economic areas. In 2022, however, the challenges associated with winning the global public over to China’s authoritarian system are many and are significantly more daunting than those Beijing faced at the 2008 Games. Around the world, views of China have soured significantly due to the government’s initial handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns over human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and China’s use of economic coercion—among other factors.

There have been multiple developments as the Olympics draw near that threaten to jeopardize China’s goal of increasing global appeal through this event.

Most recently, the Omicron variant has undermined the Games’ potential soft power gains and public health wins for China. In contrast to Japan, which did not allow in-person spectators at the Summer Olympics in 2021, Beijing was poised to witness “hundreds of thousands of vaccinated, mask-free spectators packing stadiums”—albeit an entirely domestic audience. With the emergence of the Omicron variant within China, however, Beijing canceled ticket sales to the public, opting instead to invite select groups of spectators to attend the games in person. The restriction of Olympic spectators waters down China’s efforts to stand in contrast with Japan, as well as Western countries that have been less effective in containing the pandemic.

Concerns about Chinese human rights abuses have also threatened to derail Beijing’s goals for the 2022 Olympic Games. During the runup to the Olympics, over 180 human rights groups issued a letter encouraging governments to engage in a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics over these abuses. The United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others, took up these calls and announced diplomatic boycotts. Japan and New Zealand announced their diplomats will not attend the Games, but stopped short of officially staging diplomatic boycotts. Although most countries will not join the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics, its existence clearly signals international disapproval of Beijing’s domestic policies among several democratic countries.

Moreover, global criticism of Chinese authorities' heavy-handed restriction and even harassment of journalists covering the 2022 Winter Olympics has further tarnished Beijing’s international image. While China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently stated that China will facilitate foreign journalists’ coverage of the Olympics, China’s involvement in correspondents’ coverage of the event has previously raised questions regarding journalists’ freedom of speech. In November, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) accused China’s National Olympic Organizing Committee of barring journalists from photographing Olympic venues, failing to uphold internationally accepted standards of media coverage.

Olympic athletes additionally find themselves in increasingly tenuous positions navigating China’s limits on free speech and human rights tensions while pursuing their athletic aims. The government’s “closed loop management system” for containing Covid-19 restricts access for most members of the press to report on the Olympic Village and limits athletes’ exposure to the outside world while participating in the events. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has also recommended that American athletes bring “burner phones” to Beijing over cybersecurity and surveillance concerns. Canadian, Dutch, and British associations have issued similar warnings.

Amid this backdrop, there are concerns that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not doing enough to push back against Chinese restrictions that undermine the liberal traditions of the Olympics. The IOC has been repeatedly accused of mishandling famous Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s precarious situation after she accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Despite mounting international pressure and concern in response to Peng’s disappearance, the IOC failed to give assurances about Peng’s safety, sowing doubt about whether it—or any other organization—could ensure foreign journalists and athletes can freely report or comment on the 2022 Olympics.

With limited foreign coverage, draconian Covid-19 protocols, and heightened alert to all matters considered politically sensitive, Beijing’s 2022 Olympics is a kettle waiting for several issues to boil over at once. Although China’s financial and political investment in the Olympics Games is massive, the new restrictions on its audience, heightened governmental expectations, and an unstable political backdrop may stymie any chances of repeating a 2008 moment.

Patrick Beyrer and Morgan Peirce are former interns with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.