Tea Leaf Nation
Beijing’s Winter Doldrums
Chinese citizens are far less excited about Beijing 2022 than they were about 2008, and cost is partially to blame.
On July 31, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing, the arid northern capital of a country with little tradition of winter sports. Beijing will be first city in history to host both the winter games and the summer, the latter of which it held to much fanfare in 2008. But compared with the cascade of spontaneous rejoicing in the capital city’s streets in 2001, after the International Olympic Committee announced Beijing as the host for the 2008 Summer Olympics, this time around the decision has been met with far less enthusiasm.
Chinese state media seemed to have spooled up a huge rollout in preparation for the announcement. Within one minute of the announcement, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) posted an infographic to its social media account celebrating the decision, and the news soon became a top-trending hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo. Tens of thousands of celebratory Weibo comments poured in. News of the winning bid quickly headlined the websites of state news agency Xinhua and Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. More than a few social media users noted the speed of the media rollout, with some posting sly emoticons and remarking, “Looks like you prepared early there, didn’t you?”
Despite the state media blitz, however, the mood in Beijing was nothing compared to the horn honking, flag waving, and fireworks that filled the city after it won its first Olympic bid. In the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing spared no expense in its preparations building spectacular stadiums, revamping its airport, and even halting factory production during the games to clear the notoriously smoggy air. Chinese authorities portrayed the games as a chance for China to prove itself on the national stage, and after the final medal count revealed that at 51, Beijing had won the most gold medals, 15 more than runner-up the United States, one popular bumper sticker in the capital’s streets declared, “We won!”
But this time around, apart from government-sponsored events, there was little celebratory activity on the streets. The country’s digital byways were less triumphant as well, and a vocal minority of netizens criticized the bid as a waste of taxpayer money. In a popular Aug. 2 post on Weibo that was later deleted by censors, one user in Beijing — a mergers executive named Wang Wei with more than 3.7 million Weibo followers — wondered how that city, with little natural snow, could have progressed so far in the competition to host the Olympics. Of the more than 5,000 comments that the post attracted, several of the most up-voted shared the concern that the expensive games would be a financial drain. “The reason Boston gave up its bid,” read the top-ranked comment, in what appeared to be a subtle criticism of China’s own bid, “is that it didn’t want to waste taxpayer money.” Others believed the funds should be used to improve services, such as the nation’s spotty healthcare network which has left millions of rural migrants without coverage. “[They’re] not thinking about the people’s well-being,” commented another user. “There are still so many people who lead difficult lives. Why don’t we use this money to build a better health insurance system?”
Seven years after Chinese widely celebrated the country’s first Olympic coming-out party, the global outlook has changed. In 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, and in 2014 passed the U.S. GDP in purchasing power parity. Under President Xi Jinping, already hailed by some as China’s strongest leader since Communist Party ruler Mao Zedong, the country has burnished its reputation as a growing regional and global power. But while China has gotten richer, many people there feel they have not been significant beneficiaries of the country’s spectacular growth.
With such a remarkable national record in less than a decade, it seems that some in China have become less willing to prioritize expensive shows of power over the well-being of average Chinese. In one popular thread on Zhihu, a question and answer forum that tends to attract young well-educated participants, users debated Beijing’s successful bid for the 2022 Olympics. One top comment, up-voted more than 2,300 times, succinctly argued why it was patriotic to criticize the 2022 bid. “Previously, we thought of China as a ‘developing country’; as a country discriminated against and misunderstood by developed countries,” wrote the comment’s author. “So the 2008 Olympics were just the right opportunity to show the world that China was a strong, rich country with a contented populace.” But China is no longer the same country it was in 2008, continued the comment, echoing a common criticism online that the Winter Olympics will be a “waste of the people’s resources” that may also harm the environment. “It’s not that these changes mean that people aren’t patriotic, are not welcoming to guests, or don’t want the country to be rich and strong,” but rather demonstrates a “rational kind of patriotism.”
But such criticisms sparked angry responses from other users, demonstrating the divided nature of online sentiment in regards to Beijing 2022. One top comment blasted criticism of the Olympics, retorting that “there’s nothing wrong with the country being strong and mighty.” Another defended Beijing’s winning bid, writing, “Hosting the Winter Olympics is something that makes everyone happy.” Still others derided naysayers as “dogs,” a term used to denote traitors.
To be sure, most social media posts about Beijing’s Olympic bid were positive, though state restrictions on Internet speech in China have dampened open dialogue there. Since the July 31 announcement, official censors have been busy sifting through Olympics-related Weibo posts. It seemed that they had already found their way to the Zhihu thread above; the most popular comment, up-voted more than 4,000 times, could not be accessed and instead displayed a message that read “Awaiting revision: Political content not appropriate for the public.” Even with the active censorship, some web users remained confident in their assessment of what China really needs to be strong. “Self-strengthening,” one Zhihu user wrote, “means focusing on developing the country, not relying on extravaganzas in an attempt to prove national power.”
Yiqin Fu, Helen Gao, and Yueran Zhang contributed research.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images