In times of rising geopolitical tension around the world, this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing could have been seen as an opportunity to improve diplomatic dialogue and people-to-people engagement between China and the West. Instead, deteriorating relations between both sides in recent months, have contributed to a widening ideological rift, while at the same time, consolidation of the China-Russia alliance.
Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has maintained its position that the Olympics are not about politics, in the build-up to the tournament in China this year, national boycotts as a result of the country’s worsening human rights record in Xinjiang, began to increase in number.
The situation is reminiscent of 2008, when China last hosted the Olympics and, this year, the dynamics are similar although there are also some differences. Most important of these differences is, in 2008, China and the West were engaged in a process of coming closer together diplomatically, economically and socially, guided by China’s national policy of reform and the West’s expectations that China would continue to liberalize politically.
In comparison, today, both China and the West are in a period of intensifying strategic competition and a process of economic and technological decoupling, both areas which have become deeply intertwined over the last three decades.
Coincidentally, the Winter Olympics have taken place exactly during the 50th anniversary of former US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972 which brought Beijing out of international isolation and opened up relations between China and the rest of the world.
Olympics as political propaganda
The Winter Olympics have been an occasion for the Chinese government to present itself as a great power domestically and abroad, not only as an economic success story, but also as an alternative political model that can redefine the rules of the international system.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony sought to display the strength of the Chinese-Russian partnership in a world, not only characterized by ideological contest, but also potential military conflict, as Russian forces at the time, began increasing their presence along the borders of Ukraine, while athletes from around the world assembled in Beijing.
But the Games have not only been politicized by the Chinese government but also by Western governments too. In December 2021, for example, the US announced its boycott of the tournament over concerns of human rights abuses both in Xinjiang and also in the democracy movement crackdown in Hong Kong. The US boycott was quickly followed by Australia, the UK and Canada – the first such boycott of an Olympic host country since the Cold War – the last taking place at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
While the IOC, as an international non-governmental organization, maintains its position that it is strictly politically neutral, the recent controversy surrounding China’s tennis player, Peng Shuai, shows how sports organizations are no longer able to keep outside the political arena.
Shrinking space for civil society
The organization of this year’s Winter Olympics as an invitation-only ‘bubble’ has contributed further to a disconnect between China and the world. Of course the ‘bubble’ is primarily a result of the Chinese government’s COVID-19 strategy due to several outbreaks across the country ahead of the tournament. But the unintended effects of this policy have been an increasing gap between the Chinese people with the rest of the world. Indeed, the bubble can be seen as an example of the shrinking space for civil society in China and these Games raise the question of how to constructively engage with China going forwards as a result.
In this, there are three elements to consider. Firstly, the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have continued to dive deeper into its citizen’s everyday lives, partly driven by an increasing fear of foreign interference, not only politically, but also culturally. As a result, the Chinese government has reasserted its dominance in shaping the private lives of its citizens including new rules on after-school education and foreign entertainment and celebrity culture. Moreover, China’s immigration laws remain tight making it difficult for foreigners living in China to integrate into Chinese society as citizens.
Secondly, the increasingly restricted space for civil society in China has impacted foreign journalists, academics and non-governmental organizations working in the country. China’s Foreign NGO Law, for example, implemented in 2017, has severely limited what international NGOs can do in a wide range of areas from social reform to gender equality.
In fact, a number of international NGOs have pulled out of China since 2017, as a result of being affected by the international soft power ambitions of the Chinese party to redefine civil society participation on the international level. These restrictions on civic cooperation were reinforced by the Sino-Russian declaration at the start of the Winter Olympics on countering the interference of external actors in the internal affairs of other countries.
Thirdly, polarization within Western countries about their relationship with China means counter-productive measures taken in some Western countries haven’t helped in fostering relations between both sides. This includes the Trump administration’s decision to cancel the China Fulbright programme in 2020 which enabled US-Chinese student exchange. Instead, many Chinese students at Western universities have faced growing anti-Asian racism which has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.