Are The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics a Propaganda Platform for the Chinese Communist Party?

Yao Ming carries the Olympic torch in Tiananmen Square for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (by 麦哲伦 via Wikimedia Commons)

On June 4 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics offers the chance to press China on its human rights record.

“The pressure on China right now from the international community … is significantly acute, particularly with the Winter Olympics coming up in China next year,” Trudeau told the Toronto Star in an interview, adding that “when the global community comes together, that starts to shape [Beijing’s] own calculations.”

This view is not only naïve and misleading, but it also ignores decades of history showing how dictatorial regimes use the Olympics for propaganda purposes. There is absolutely no evidence that the Olympics have ever had a positive impact on the human rights situation of the country hosting them.

As far back as the 1930s, Nazi Germany used the Olympics to improve its international image.

This is how William Shirer, an American journalist who worked as a correspondent in Nazi Germany, described his own experience with covering the Olympics and the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda:

A telephone call awakened me this morning [January 23, 1936] … and it turned out to be Wilfred [Wilfried] Bade, a fanatical Nazi careerist at the moment in charge of the Foreign Press in the Propaganda Ministry.

He began: “Have you been in Garmisch recently?” I said: “No.” Then he began to shout: “I see, you haven’t been there and yet you have the dishonesty to write a fake story about the Jews there….” “Wait a minute,” I said, “you can’t call me dishonest…” but he had hung up.

At noon Tess [Shirer’s wife] turned on the radio for the news just in time for us to hear a ringing personal attack on me, implying that I was a dirty Jew and was trying to torpedo the winter Olympic Games at Garmisch (which begin in a few days) with false stories about the Jews and Nazi officials there. When I got to the office after lunch, the front pages of the afternoon papers were full of typically hysterical Nazi denunciations of me. The Germans at the office expected the Gestapo to come to get me at any moment.

Actually, I had written in a mail series, some time ago, that the Nazis at Garmisch had pulled down all the signs saying that Jews were unwanted (they’re all over Germany) and that the Olympic visitors would thus be spared any signs of the kind of treatment meted out to Jews in this country

[O]n the whole the Nazis have done a wonderful propaganda job. They’ve greatly impressed most of the visiting foreigners with the lavish but smooth way in which they’ve run the games and with their kind manners, which to us who came from Berlin of course seemed staged. I was so alarmed at this that I gave a luncheon for some of our businessmen and invited Douglas Miller, our commercial attaché in Berlin, and the best informed man on Germany we have in our Embassy, to enlighten them a little. But they told him what things were like, and Doug scarcely got a word in …

I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen (Shirer, W. (1941). Berlin Diary, entries from January 23, February (undated) and August 16, 1936, my emphasis).

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Famously, after the Olympics the Nazis dismantled even the façade of civility they had briefly put up to impress foreign visitors, and their policies became increasingly extreme. Meanwhile, the positive image they had acquired helped divide and weaken any potential opposition from abroad.

The 1936 Olympics should have been a warning about how not to run a sporting event of such scale for the benefit of dictatorial regimes. But in 2008, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) hosted the Olympics in Beijing, and a similar dynamic played out. That year, the president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press that he was “quietly” talking with China on Tibet and other human rights issues before the Olympics.

“The IOC [International Olympic Committee] is engaged in what I call a ‘silent diplomacy’ with Chinese authorities since day one of the preparations of the games,” Rogge stated. “We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues, while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs.”

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were characterized by a series of controversies related to the regime’s human rights abuses. As Human Rights Watch wrote then:

The run-up to the Beijing Olympics has been marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association, as well as media freedom. In addition, abuses of migrant construction workers who were pivotal to Beijing’s infrastructure improvements have increased, as have evictions of Beijing residents whose homes were demolished to make way for that infrastructure.

Teng Biao, one of several Beijing lawyers, including Zhang Jiankang and Jiang Tianyong, who lost their licenses to practice law as an official reprisal for publicly offering to defend Tibetan suspects arrested in the wake of the Lhasa riots in March. Teng Biao first became a target for official punishment due to a letter he co-wrote with Hu Jia in September 2007. The letter was a stinging indictment of the Chinese government’s failure to deliver on its promises to the IOC to develop human rights in China ahead of the 2008 Olympics. “When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing … you may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood,” they wrote (my emphasis).

Rogge’s “quiet” talks had, as was to be expected, little impact. Democratic countries paid performative lip service to the defence of human rights, but practically they brushed them aside for the sake of business and spectacle.

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The Beijing Olympics thus allowed the Chinese Communist regime to launch a propaganda campaign targeting both domestic and global audiences. As Jeanne Boden (2019) explained:

The Olympic games in 2008 in Beijing were a chance for China to show its potential and competence. The years of preparation for the Olympic games were like a huge national political propaganda campaign. Everyone, all over China, into the farthest corners of Kashgar, Harbin, Dali or Xiamen, was requested to contribute to a successful Games. All Chinese citizens were asked to take responsibility for the national event

[China] set the goal of winning more gold medals that the US, revealing China’s secret ambition to become the number one in the world. A great deal was expected of the Chinese athletes. They represented their country and were the role models of national success. Their images adorned propaganda campaigns as the heroes of the nation. Already during the Mao administration, the idealised image of the traditional refined and fragile Chinese man had been replaced by strong muscular men and women. During the Olympics, the image of the strong physical body came to represent the strong bodies China needed to compete with the West, and later for the national rejuvenation of China …

The 2008 handbook for civil etiquette states: Organising the Olympic games is a common wish for 1.3 billion Chinese. To powerfully contribute to the Olympic games is a common venture for the whole nation. In China today, the economy is developed, the government is stable, the society is progressive, the people are united and lead a good and happy life. In short, the power of the nation is strong

The image China wanted to present to the world had to be unambiguously positive, happy, joyful, harmonious and hospitable. Anything that could be a potential disturbance had to be avoided. Migrants who had flocked to Beijing over the past decades were sent back home. All the citizens of Beijing were requested to be polite and to smile, to help host a great Olympics, to realise a dream, to earn respect for China (Boden, J. (2019). Chinese Propaganda Seducing the World, chapter 4).

Following the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese regime became increasingly authoritarian and hostile to the outside world, particularly after Xi Jinping took power in 2013.

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In 2014, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, another huge propaganda project for a dictatorial regime. In March of that year, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

By contrast, in 1980 president Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Approximately 60 other countries joined in the boycott.

Obviously the boycott had no decisive impact on the decline and fall of the Soviet Union only a decade later. But it denied the Soviet regime the full power of the Olympics propaganda platform. It was part of a Cold War approach to the rivalry of opposing ideological systems.

The Cold War, so often vilified by some pundits, provides a successful blueprint for how to deal with authoritarianism, one that is more successful than the moral ambiguity and strategic inconsistency that characterized the way in which democracies dealt with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or have been dealing with Putin and the CCP.


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