China’s Games: How Xi Jinping Is Staging the Olympics on His Terms

When the International Olympic Committee met seven years ago to choose a host for the 2022 Winter Games, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sent a short video message that helped tip the scale in a close, controversial vote.

China had limited experience with winter sports. Little snow falls in the distant hills where outdoor events would take place. Pollution was so dense at times that it was known as the “Airpocalypse.”

Mr. Xi pledged to resolve all of this, putting his personal prestige on what seemed then like an audacious bid. “We will deliver every promise we made,” he told the Olympic delegates meeting in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.

With the Games only days away, China has delivered. It has plowed through the obstacles that once made Beijing’s bid seem a long shot, and faced down new ones, including an unending pandemic and mounting international concern over its authoritarian behavior.

As in 2008, when Beijing was host of the Summer Olympics, the Games have become a showcase of the country’s achievements. Only now, it is a very different country.

China no longer needs to prove its standing on the world stage; instead, it wants to proclaim the sweeping vision of a more prosperous, more confident nation under Mr. Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Where the government once sought to mollify its critics to make the Games a success, today it defies them.

Beijing 2022 “will not only enhance our confidence in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said Mr. Xi, who this year is poised to claim a third term at the top. It will also “show a good image of our country and demonstrate our nation’s commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Mr. Xi’s government has brushed off criticism from human rights activists and world leaders as the bias of those — including President Biden — who would keep China down. It has implicitly warned Olympic broadcasters and sponsors not to bend to calls for protests or boycotts over the country’s political crackdown in Hong Kong or its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, the largely Muslim region in the northwest.

It has overruled the I.O.C. in negotiations over health protocols to combat Covid and imposed stricter safety measures than those during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year. It has insisted on sustaining its “zero Covid” strategy, evolved from China’s first lockdown, in Wuhan two years ago, regardless of the cost to its economy and its people.

Very few people today harbor illusions, unlike in 2008, that the privilege of hosting the event will moderate the country’s authoritarian policies. China then sought to meet the world’s terms. Now the world must accept China’s.

“They don’t need this to legitimize their rule,” said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.” “And they don’t need to please the whole world to make the event a big success.”

The I.O.C., like international corporations and entire countries, has become so dependent on China and its huge market that few can, or dare, to speak up against the direction Mr. Xi is taking the country.

China’s critics, activists for human and labor rights and others have accused the committee of failing to press Mr. Xi to change the country’s increasingly authoritarian policies. However, that presumes the committee has leverage to use.

When Mr. Xi’s government faced an international furor after smothering an accusation of sexual assault by the tennis player Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian, the I.O.C. did not speak out. Instead, it helped deflect concerns about her whereabouts and safety.

China’s tenacious — many say ruthless — efficiency was precisely what appealed to Olympic delegates after the staggering costs of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the white-knuckle chaos of preparations for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

As Mr. Xi promised, the toxic air that once choked Beijing has largely, if not entirely, given way to blue skies. High-speed railways have slashed the trip from Beijing to the most distant venues from four hours to one.

In an area perennially short of water, China built a network of pipelines to feed a phalanx of snow-making machines to dust barren slopes in white. Officials this week even claimed the entire Games would be “fully carbon neutral.”

Christophe Dubi, executive director of the upcoming Games, said in an interview that China proved to be a partner willing and able to do whatever it took to pull off the event, regardless of the challenges.

“Organizing the Games,” Mr. Dubi said, “was easy.”

The committee has deflected questions about human rights and other controversies overshadowing the Games. While the committee’s own charter calls for “improving the promotion and respect of human rights,” officials have said that it was not for them to judge the host country’s political system.

Instead, what matters most to the committee is pulling off the Games. By selecting Beijing, the committee had alighted on a “safe choice,” said Thomas Bach, the committee’s president.

“We know China will deliver on its promises.”

Beijing’s bid to become the first city to host a Summer and Winter Olympics took root when Lim Chee Wah, the scion of a Malaysian developer of casinos and golf courses, moved to a booming Beijing in the 1990s and wanted a place to ski.

He drove up winding roads northwest of Beijing for five hours to a mountainous region populated by cabbage and potato farmers. The area’s only ski resort was a single wooden building with a dining room, a handful of hotel rooms and a small ski shop.

“I went out and said, ‘Where is the ski lift?’ and they said, ‘You see this road going up?’” he recalled in an interview. A Toyota Coaster minibus ferried skiers up the road to the top of the slope.

Mr. Lim, who had learned to ski in the American resort town of Vail, Colo., soon struck a deal with the local authorities to turn 24,700 acres of mostly barren hills into China’s largest ski resort.

In 2009 he met with Gerhard Heiberg, Norway’s representative on the executive board of the Olympic committee, who had previously overseen the organization of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. Together, they began envisioning how to hold the Games in the hills near the Great Wall of China.

China had previously sought the Winter Olympics, proposing to hold the 2010 Games in Harbin, the former Russian outpost that is the capital of the northeast province of Heilongjiang. The city did not even make the shortlist in a competition ultimately won in 2003 by Vancouver, British Columbia. The authorities in Harbin mulled another bid in the heady aftermath of Beijing 2008, but scrapped the idea when they seemed destined to fail again.

By then, the luster of hosting the Winter Games had worn off. Vancouver was dogged by unseasonably warm weather. Sochi 2014 — intended as a valedictory of Vladimir V. Putin’s rule in Russia — cost a staggering $51 billion.

Growing wariness of organizing the quadrennial event gave China an unexpected advantage. Beijing — no one’s idea of a winter sports capital — could reuse sites from the 2008 Games, including the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the opening ceremony. The Water Cube, which held the swimming and diving events 14 years ago, was rebranded as the Ice Cube.

Figure skating and short-track speedskating (which provided China its only gold medal in the 2018 Winter Games) will take place at the Capital Indoor Stadium, the venue of the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” between the United States and China in 1971 and Olympic volleyball in 2008.

China promised to spend only $1.5 billion on capital projects at venues, plus that much in operating expenses, a fraction of the cost for Sochi or the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which cost nearly $13 billion. “When you don’t have the pressure of money the way we do in other contexts, it is really different,” said Mr. Dubi of the Olympic committee.

Even so, China’s bid seemed unlikely to succeed, especially since the 2018 Games were also taking place in Asia and officials expected the next host to be in Europe. Then one European city after another pulled out, leaving Beijing competing only against Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, once a republic of the Soviet Union.

The final tally was 44 to 40 for Beijing, with one abstention. Almaty’s supporters were left to fume over a glitch in the electronic voting system that prompted a manual recount to “protect the integrity of the vote.” That Kazakhstan has plunged into political turmoil on the eve of the Games seems now, in hindsight, further validation of the choice to pick Beijing.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch and I’m not being disingenuous or negative toward the Chinese — they probably would not have been victorious…

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