Beijing 2022: how is the China of the 2008 Olympics different from now

Beijing became the first city in history to host a Summer and winter Olympics. But between 2008 and 2022 many things have changed. The general mood, the attitude of the host government and global expectations today are very different.

In 2008 I covered the Beijing Games and I still live in the Chinese capital. The atmosphere is definitely not the same in 2022. Naturally, the Summer Olympics are always more important than the Winter Olympics, simply because there are so many more countries involved. And then of course is the covid.

Organizing a “normal” Games is impossible with coronavirus outbreaks emerging across Beijing, in a country that maintains its official commitment to a “zero covid” strategy.

One consequence of this is that tickets are not sold to the public.

Instead, state-owned companies and other Communist Party organizations are distributing them to their staff, who must adhere to strict prevention measures, including possible quarantine and multiple tests before and after attending events.

However, even if there was no covid-19, the China of today is not the China of 2008.

With a devastating winter snow storm across the south of the country, 2008 started out as “the year from hell”. Then came a monk-led uprising in Tibet, followed by a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan that killed an estimated 70,000 people.

The earthquake and the desperate race to find survivors sparked a enormous international sympathy for China.

When the Games began, the then leaders of the Communist Party took advantage of this to show the best side of the country by highlighting its booming economy, amazing new architectural masterpieces, dynamic and fun cities, and a society that had become much more open. , with an avant-garde art scene, underground music groups, and increasing exposure to foreign ideas.

Beijing has been transformed at a dizzying pace.

In 2022, a new Party leadership governs the country, with different priorities.

The attitude on global perceptions of Xi Jinping’s China goes more like this: We suffered 100 years of humiliation during the 20th century, our time has come, and the rest of you will have to settle down as we rise to our rightful place on the world stage.

The China progressive from 2008

Following the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing lost its bid to Sydney to host the 2000 Olympics.

In order to secure the 2008 Games, certain changes were announced to show that China had advanced and he was a worthy host.

One of those changes was loosening travel restrictions on foreign correspondents.

Until then, journalists required authorization from a local government to travel anywhere in the country.

I attended a function in 2008 and, along with a group of reporters, spoke with Qin Gang from the Foreign Ministry, who is now the Chinese ambassador to the US.

Construction of the Beijing Olympic swimming pool in 2008

Getty Images
In 2008, it seemed that China could only keep going.

We asked him if he thought the rules for journalists were going to get tougher again when the Games were over.

“No way,” he said, smiling and mimicking the movement of a gear lever with his hand. “China only has one gear and that is forward.”

At that time, it certainly felt that way.

And, on many fronts, China has clearly made progress. If you visited Beijing in the previous Olympic Games and came back now, you would see the difference.

The city’s transport infrastructure, for example, has multiplied.

In 2008, the Beijing subway had only four lines, with two of them and some sections built just before the Games. Now, with 27 lines and 459 stations (and more to come), it has become the largest network in the world.

Vanishing Spaces in 2022

However, if the returning visitor digs a little deeper, they might also find that tolerance for ideas not endorsed by the Communist Party has been greatly reduced. Some would even say that it is fading.

Dissidents have been pressured in recent weeks to keep quiet at a time when all eyes are on China. This also happened in 2008. The difference now is that there really aren’t that many intellectuals or human rights lawyers left to silence. They have long been fenced off.

Even academics without political affiliations are reluctant to give interviews in case their comments could be interpreted as giving a bad image of their homeland.

In fact, a group of intellectuals who are seen as troublemakers have just been banned from groups on the biggest social media platform here, Wechat.

People skating near the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing.

The Bird’s Nest Stadium is back in the spotlight for the Olympics in China, but it’s a very different time for the country.

One of them, Zhang Yihe, told the BBC: “At first I was angry, because I can’t make my voice heard. I later decided that angry feelings are useless and would only harm my health.”

She assured that she does not expect that the new restrictions for her and the others -imposed by the Olympic Games- will be softened even after the sports event is over.

And this is not all that has changed.

Before the 2008 Olympics there was a unique and unrestricted nightlife in Beijing. Any foreign visitor was impressed by the energy of the place.

This metropolis still has a lot to offer, but after endless rounds of demolition many small and creative low-budget venues have been removed.

I was recently talking to a Chinese architect who joked that 10 years ago he felt like he went out every night.

“Maybe it’s because I was younger,” he said, laughing, but then he paused, thought, and added, “The city was different then. I had many foreign friends.”

Architects at that time were the stars of the city. Spectacular buildings were opened, from the Escher-inspired CCTV tower to the beautiful dome housing the National Center for the Performing Arts to the dragon-shaped Beijing airport.

Cutting-edge buildings in Beijing in 2016

Iconic avant-garde buildings and under construction in Beijing in 2016.

The Olympic structures were also impressive.

the dissident artist ai weiwei he worked as a consultant on the design of the so-called Bird’s Nest, the city’s national stadium.

I remember interviewing him then about that and all the other eye-catching structures in the capital, as well as what he thought the city might become in the future in terms of cutting-edge architecture.

“Nerd. It’s all over,” she replied.

I did not understand.

“That window, that moment in time, has now closed,” he said.

What the artist, who is now in exile, meant was that the pre-Olympic space for risky and artistic expression in architecture was running out, even before the Games were over.

I was a bit skeptical, but in 2014 President Xi said this out loud when he told a major cultural symposium that he had had enough of all the “weird architecture”.

However, the eyes of the world will once again be focused on the Bird’s Nest during the opening ceremonies and also during the closing ceremonies of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

There will be fewer governments represented after a series of diplomatic boycotts for alleged human rights violations, especially in Xinjiang, where the authorities have been accused of serious abuses against the ethnic Uyghur population.

And while Beijing’s attitude toward other countries has become more rigid in recent years, several foreign governments have also toughened their stances towards China.

Outside there is less willingness to ignore the Party’s abuses of its own citizens.

A girl poses in front of a decorative stage for the Games in central Beijing.

Getty Images
A girl poses in front of a decorative stage for the Games in central Beijing.

What will the 2022 Games look like?

At least to some extent, the ceremonies at these Olympic Games will be constantly watched from a cultural point of view, again by the film director Zhang Yimou.

Critical voices have accused Zhang of selling out, from directing films critical of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, in which millions starved to death, to receiving high praise for his 2008 visual spectacle.

The director could argue that the Games simply provide another canvas on which to display a vision of China: where it has been and where it is going.

Considering how China’s position in the world has changed, watching the Winter Olympics ceremonies is fascinating. They completely shape the way the rest of the world sees the Games.

The event will be televised. Tickets were not sold. The only foreigners will be the participants and workers, and everything that it looks from Beijing it is what is confined inside a giant bubble of protection against covid.

All of these factors are crucial to knowing what these Olympic Games will ultimately become.

In any case, for a government nervous if something goes wrong, if this becomes a historical moment of “stay at home”, it may even be convenient in the end.

  • Stephen McDonell

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