The most political moment of the 2022 Winter Olympics is upon us.
The opening ceremony, which start Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. in Beijing, will give President Xi Jinping his best chance to use the games to burnish his country’s image. Almost immediately afterward, the competitions will take over the spotlight, but for a few hours on Friday, China will have the attention of a worldwide audience to itself.
“The Olympics can be useful for bolstering China’s image because they draw attention from viewers who don’t necessarily pay lots of attention to global politics and foreign policy, where coverage of China’s behavior has been much more critical,” said Sheena Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on East Asia.
Even with the advantage of viewers’ general excitement and enthusiasm, Beijing has an uphill battle. Reports of human rights abuses in the country’s Xinjiang region, the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and saber-rattling over Taiwan have pushed opinions about China to historic lows in the West, fueling opposition to its rise as a global power.
Western TV networks including NBC and the BBC, have come under pressure to address China’s human rights record during live broadcasts of the opening ceremony, and some athletes may not participate as a form of protest. Against that backdrop, the pageantry is one way Beijing can make its appeal.
Last summer, Xi told senior officials the country needed a more “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image internationally. To put that on display during the opening ceremony, Beijing tapped Zhang Yimou, China’s best-known film director. Zhang, whose movies include “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” also directed the 2008 opening pageant, a four-hour spectacle that involved a cast of 15,000.
This year’s opening ceremony will also take place at Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, which held the event in 2008. By contrast, it will be “simple, safe and splendid,” organizers have said, just over an hour and a half with a mere 3,000 participants. About 90% will be students.
“China will seek to use the Games to present a positive view of Chinese culture as something apolitical,” said University of Texas’s Greitens.
Domestically, Beijing will make its appeal to an audience exhausted by strict Covid restrictions and worried about a worsening economy. The property market, where many Chinese have the majority of their personal wealth, is slumping, just as Xi readies for a Communist Party congress later this year, where he’s expected to secure a precedent-defying third term.
The opening ceremony will showcase technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Cathy Wu, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University whose research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, sees that as an attempt to demonstrate that China continues to achieve breakthroughs and make progress. “It’s kind of like sending a message to China’s domestic audience that we are doing fine,” she said.
China’s general challenges will be underscored by the sparse crowd at the opening ceremony. Attendance is limited as a precaution against Covid, and a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the games has persuaded many world leaders to stay away. There will be 21 world leaders in Beijing for this year’s festivities, compared with 68 in 2008, and of those in attendance, only one — Luxembourg’s Grand Duke Henri — represents a “full democracy.”
In the end, there may be few truly open minds in the audience, noted Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon and author of several books on the Olympics. “Olympic boosters will be ready to praise the ceremony almost regardless of what actually transpires,” he said. “Critics will be sniffing out opportunities to platform their critiques.”
In the long run, the data is mixed on how the Olympics can affect a country’s image. Activists also recognize the power of the Olympics to market their causes, and polls and surveys by Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index, Gallup Inc. and the BBC suggest perceptions of China may have suffered after the 2008 games.
“The effect of the Olympic games on national image is complicated and unpredictable,” said Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of “Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.” “Soft power does not inevitably follow the hosting of Olympic games.”