Beijing Olympics then and now: Why the 2008 and 2022 Games feel worlds apart

This week, Beijing will officially be the first city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. After 14 years the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics feel like worlds apart.

China is no longer a rising country. China has risen and is confident in its place in the world as an economic and political power.

Here’s what has changed from 2008 to 2022. 

China’s Self Image

China is richer and more powerful than it was at the time of the 2008 Games. Its advancement was accelerated by the global financial crisis, which began before the Beijing Olympics and worsened afterward.  Its gross domestic product grew from almost $5 trillion in 2008 to $18 trillion in 2021, making China the world’s second-largest economy after the U.S. 

Change in Leadership

President Xi Jinping is on track to become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s forcefulness contrasts with his predecessor Hu Jintao more emollient style of leadership., With President Xi Jinping at the helm, the nation has grown more assertive and ambitious.

The Global Context

The world feels very differently about China than it did 14 years ago.

In December, the White House announced the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, citing human rights abuses including a campaign of repression against Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, that the U.S. government and others have described as genocide. This diplomatic boycott has been joined by Australia, Britain, and Canada.

The Government’s Tightening Grip

Rights activists raised concerns and called for a boycott when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Games. Officials from both China and the International Olympic Committee countered that hosting the Games could actually advance human rights in the country.  

This time, no one is making any claims that the Olympics will benefit human rights. According to Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, rather than improving, China’s rights record has worsened significantly since 2008.

Most prominent is the internment of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities at government “re-education” camps, where detainees have reported cruel and degrading treatment, including torture.

Chinese authorities are firm that their actions are aimed at stamping out terrorism and denying allegations of mistreatment.

Room for dissent is also shrinking rapidly in Hong Kong, particularly since Beijing imposed a national security law in 2020 after months of pro-democracy protests in the Chinese territory.

Chinese authorities have said the security law was necessary to restore stability after the protests.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists face “unprecedented” obstacles in covering mainland China, according to a new report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

Athletes are also warned that they could face “punishment” over behavior viewed as “against the Olympic spirit.” 

It is also emphasized that the Olympic Games are not about politics. The International Olympic Committee, as a civil non-governmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times and should observe local law.

Beijing as a Transformed Capital

Though the Winter Olympics are always smaller than the summer edition, the mood in Beijing ahead of the 2022 Games is still muted compared with the excitement in 2008. 

One factor is that aside from barring international spectators, Olympic organizers have said they will not be selling tickets to the general public in China, instead of giving them to “selected” spectators who must abide by strict anti-Covid measures. 

Beijing itself is also a dramatically different city than it was in 2008.

Though Beijing has become more sophisticated in many ways, critics say it has lost some of its unique character in the process. The city’s famous hutongs, or residential alleyways — dozens of which were demolished as part of construction for the 2008 Games — have been further torn down or remade. 

Foreign athletes, journalists, and other personnel arriving in Beijing will experience the Winter Olympics without really experiencing the city hosting it.