China Brief
A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Tuesday.

Beijing Locals Shrug as Winter Olympics Begin

With China’s closed-loop system around the Games, it’s not clear who’s watching.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Guests applaud people on stage at a show  held as part of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Torch Relay in Beijing on Feb. 2.
Guests applaud people on stage at a show held as part of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Torch Relay in Beijing on Feb. 2.
Guests applaud people on stage at a show held as part of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Torch Relay in Beijing on Feb. 2. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing prepares to kick off the Winter Olympics—with all involved inside a bubble, FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks on the bureau’s maligned China Initiative, and a viral story brings attention to mental illness in China’s countryside.

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Winter Olympics Set to Begin in Beijing

The Beijing Winter Olympics begin on Friday, but Beijingers themselves are barely involved. To comply with China’s zero-COVID policy, the Games will operate within a closed-loop system in which athletes, officials, support staff, and reporters are isolated from the general public. The Olympic bubble has an entirely separate system of transport and accommodation; plentiful security and surveillance will ensure no one slips the net.

The closed-loop system goes to some extremes: Official announcements have instructed Beijing residents not to help Olympic vehicles in the event of an accident. More than 200 COVID-19 cases have already been confirmed among athletes and staff—an anticipated number, although it has heightened authorities’ concerns that COVID-19 could spread beyond the bubble.

Officials canceled plans to have a small domestic audience in December due to fear of the omicron variant. With ticket sales refunded, it’s not clear who, if anyone, will watch the Games live. First up is the opening ceremony. China has a long history of reducing its ethnic minorities to performances—often by women and children rather than adult men. Chances are that the ceremony on Friday will be no different.

The U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics has so far had little impact. If anything, Beijing has asserted that it has global support by highlighting the boycott’s limited reach. Meanwhile, China has repeated standard language about not politicizing the Games while at the same time nominating an army officer injured in 2020 border clashes with India as a prominent torchbearer.

It’s still possible that some athletes could engage in their own protests, which China has already threatened to suppress. The most significant action would be a move on the podium, à la the Black Power salutes at the 1968 Olympics. Such a protest would likely prompt retaliation—or even expulsion—from the International Olympics Committee, itself an authoritarian body that opts for silence on human rights issues. If there is a protest, it will probably focus on Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a senior Chinese Communist Party leader of sexual assault and appears to have been threatened into silence.

Due to the isolation of the Winter Olympics from the rest of the city, enthusiasm in Beijing is subdued at best. The mood is very different from the summer of 2008, when—despite mass forced evictions and heavy security—the Chinese public was invested in the Games. It helped that years of public relations preparation went into the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which appeared in Chinese elementary school textbooks beginning in 2002.

Furthermore, winter sports are simply not very popular in China—not surprisingly, because they are traditionally oriented toward the pastimes of European elites and because most of the country lacks the terrain needed to practice them. Before the Winter Olympics, China engaged in a big push to encourage skiing and other winter sports, but it will be a long time before that pays off in actual competitors.

China is expected to place between ninth and 12th on the medals table—a respectable ranking for most countries but disappointing for a country that usually comes in first or second at the Summer Olympics. Beijing has also gone to great lengths to woo ambitious Olympians, such as Chinese American freestyle skier Eileen Gu, to compete under new passports. Fifteen out of the 25 players on China’s men’s hockey team are foreign-born.

Finally, although some foreign journalists are traveling to China to cover the Winter Olympics, they will remain within the closed loop—unable to interview anyone outside it. Meanwhile, the few permanent foreign correspondents left in China are outside the loop but face extra scrutiny from officials even when reporting everyday stories on winter sports—beyond the surveillance and harassment that have already become the norm for journalists in the country.

What We’re Following

FBI head speaks on Chinese espionage. FBI Director Christopher Wray gave another highly publicized interview on the threat posed by Chinese espionage, repeating his favorite factoid: that the bureau opens one Chinese spying investigation every 12 hours. The comments seem to indicate that the U.S. Justice Department’s much-criticized China Initiative, which focuses on cases involving Chinese technology and science institutions, isn’t going anywhere despite prominent recent failures.

Wray did mention the need not to confuse the Chinese government and Chinese people, but that is of little comfort to the academics and scientists of Chinese descent who are both more likely to be targeted by the Justice Department and more likely to be acquitted, due to the relative weakness of the cases against them. Chinese espionage is a genuine problem, but Chinese American communities’ experiences with the FBI have been largely alienating and unproductive.

Mental illness in the countryside. The Chinese general public is captivated by the tragic case of a woman found chained in a shed in the village of Xuzhou, Jiangsu province. A video showing the woman, who likely has a mental illness, in a cold room in the depths of winter without a coat went viral on Douyin—the original, Chinese version of TikTok—along with a video of her husband speaking about their eight children.

Many Chinese rural families struggle to cope with relatives who have disabilities or mental illnesses, and accounts of people being chained up are not uncommon. Even urban families sometimes keep such relatives in isolation, as was once also common in the West. But in the case of the woman in Jiangsu, there are also reasonable suspicions of human trafficking; the official statement from the village claims she was a “beggar” taken in by the family in 1998 who later developed a mental illness. There have been many cases in China of women being trafficked for sexual slavery, sometimes under the guise of marriage.

Chinese censors have so far allowed the story to play out; unconfirmed reports suggest that local authorities have intervened and put the woman in a hospital and the children in care. Many Chinese commentators are thanking the BBC and other foreign media for covering the story, which could be censored once the initial attention has slowed. This is a common pattern: Stories raise social concern and are buried before there can be meaningful follow-up.

Holiday family time. The Year of the Tiger is here and with it the usual family pressures at Spring Festival, the Chinese lunar new year. Although travel was somewhat subdued this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, those who did make it home likely face the usual parental interrogation about why they’re not producing grandchildren—now mixed with state encouragement, thanks to China’s declining birthrate. (The 2017 choral number “It’s for Your Own Good” summarizes the stress involved.)

With many temple fairs, fireworks displays, and other Spring Festival celebrations shut down, there is little for many Chinese to do besides stay home with their parents. But there is a little relief: Tiger babies are considered difficult and troublesome, so aspiring grandparents may want to put off their pestering until next year.

Tech and Business

Evergrande breakup in the cards. Beijing is reportedly considering breaking up the perennially troubled real estate giant China Evergrande Group, allowing its bad debt to gradually unwind instead of causing a crisis. That may not be enough—debtors seem likely to take a severe loss as a result, but also the problems go far beyond Evergrande. Some foreign creditors are already successfully seizing Evergrande projects in other countries.

The Chinese real estate sector is staggering, and the government is trying to make sure it sits down rather than falls over. As the economist Diana Choyleva argues in Foreign Policy, economic disaster doesn’t mean political collapse in China; it’s far more likely that the country is headed for a longer period of economic stagnation.

EU brings WTO case. China’s economic bullying of Lithuania, much trumpeted in state media, is causing serious problems in its relationships with the rest of the European Union. The EU has just brought a World Trade Organization case against China’s anti-Lithuanian trade measures, introduced after Lithuania changed the status of Taiwanese representation in Vilnius.

As usual, European companies—worried about their own trade prospects in China—are trying to get Lithuania to back down, even as their governments offer support. China generally tries to keep disputes bilateral to exploit its own size and power. That the quarrel has escalated to the EU level may cause some qualms in Beijing.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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