Upon hearing that Beijing would be hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, we wondered what the Chinese government was thinking. The decision seemed counterintuitive, to say the least: For one thing, it barely snows in Beijing, or even in Zhangjiakou, the city to the northwest of the capital where the most snow-intensive events will be held. Artificial snow would have to be created in huge quantities, yet North China is unusually water-scarce. The ecological impact was potentially devastating. Economically, most recent Olympic games, particularly winter games, have far exceeded their projected costs, but often fail to generate obvious returns. The worries also ran at a more sentimental level. For one of us, a Beijing native, the fear was how much of his hometown would still be recognizable after yet another wave of Olympics-driven construction.
We were not surprised, therefore, that most English-language media commentary took a dim view of the news. Commentators were quick to highlight the potential ecological problems and economic costs—formally estimated at $U.S.3.1 billion, but likely far higher. Viewed in light of these risks, Beijing’s eagerness to host seemed puzzling. Several commentators drew comparisons not only to the withdrawal of Oslo’s bid, which left Beijing and Almaty as the only candidates, but also to Boston’s decision to drop out of the competition to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, and even to FIFA’s environmentally puzzling decision to grant the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. These comparisons perhaps inevitably, prompted questions about whether the cost of these highest-level international games had made them attractive only to autocratic regimes that could disregard domestic costs and social opposition in pursuit of international prestige—or, as a Washington Post opinion piece put it, an “ego-boost.”
What did surprise us was the reaction to the decision among our mainland Chinese friends on the major social media platforms. Most seemed genuinely enthusiastic, even giddy, about the prospect of experiencing another Olympic games in Beijing—a small parade of Chinese flags and clapping hands popped up on our Weibo and WeChat feeds, for example, in the hours after the announcement. Official surveys have long shown that more than 90 percent of Beijing and Zhangjiakou residents supported the 2022 bid, but the outpouring of support we witnessed firsthand—indeed from a swath of educated professionals who usually treat government activity with some level of sarcasm and doubt—was nonetheless unexpected.
We wondered what we were missing. What was the Chinese government thinking? What, exactly, are its political incentives to host another Olympic games? Is it merely a question of international prestige? Beijing’s political calculus is almost certainly more sophisticated than that, especially when the fiscal investments are so large and visible.
We think that the answer likely lies in domestic social sentiment. The Chinese government, like most national governments (including, and especially, Western democracies), makes policy primarily for a domestic audience, rather than an international one. If—if—there truly is broad social support for hosting the games, then the political benefits of doing so would be massive: The government would stand to gain a sizeable boost in general popularity, something that, perhaps contrary to conventional stereotypes, autocratic regimes of China’s size and complexity care deeply about. More specifically, it would also effectively acquire a political “license” for the Beijing-Tianjin Hebei development nexus, an ambitious infrastructure program. The merging of these regions into a unified economic entity is not only the Party’s proposed solution to Beijing’s demographic and resource pressures, but also a major component of its long-term economic growth agenda, something that could provide a safety net for both growth and employment if market-oriented reforms stagnate and the economy continues to slow. On the other hand, it will be socially disruptive, difficult to implement, and potentially incompatible with a wide variety of local interests. A socially popular Olympic Games held in the region could be a powerful source of legitimacy that might help quell the political dissatisfaction that such projects almost inevitably provoke.
All of this rests, of course, on the assumption that the Games would indeed be socially popular. The available statistical evidence, as discussed above, is suggestive, but demands further explanation. To really go out on a limb here: If Beijing’s 2022 bid were put to an actual public vote, would it survive—and, if so, why?
There is obviously no empirically reliable answer, but it is probably true that the social perception of an Olympics bid is far more positive in China than in the West. A superficial analysis would suggest that the average Beijing resident, particularly someone from a younger generation, remembers the 2008 Summer Olympics as a smashing success: a symbol of economic development, a tremendously entertaining spectacle, and a national triumph of almost unprecedented scale. Academic studies suggest that most Olympic games enjoy high levels of local support “before, during, and after the games,” but the level of domestic sentimentality surrounding the 2008 Games has produced some particularly striking anecdotes: a popular and award-winning science fiction novel, for example, nostalgically celebrates the games as the apex of Chinese development. It is not terribly hard to believe that many people would welcome a second round.
More fundamentally, the Chinese population, particularly its highly-educated sector, remains deeply nationalist and is sometimes supportive of state activity that generates no obvious benefit other than the perception of national power and status—the popularity of the state’s hardline stance in the South China Sea is one example. Modern Chinese nationalism may very well have been the ideological product of a series of autocratic states reaching back to the early 20th Century, but at this point in time, it has almost certainly become an independent social phenomenon, and would likely retain its influence even without government support. It has, in other words, obtained a social life of its own, quite separate from the state’s intentions and wishes. In fact, recent years have provided numerous incidents in which popular nationalism drove and constrained state policy, rather than vice versa. In this kind of social environment, the psychological appeal of projecting national power via hosting an internationally prominent sporting event remains extremely powerful, even if somewhat diminished since the earlier stages of China’s post-1978 reform era.
This begs the question, of course, of whether the Olympics are still seen as a desirable vessel for national prestige. As a general matter, the Olympic Games likely command a higher level of sociopolitical prestige outside the Western world, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Remember, for example, that the 2018 Winter Games will be held in Korea and the 2020 Summer Games in Japan, both functional democracies. The reasons for this are complex; one likely factor is the heightened level of nationalist tension in the region, particularly between China, Japan, and Korea, which imbues international sports events, particularly events that these countries are highly competitive in, with political significance. Europeans and Americans might find this strange. If they were to look back to the Cold War, they might find that they, too, cared more about such events when geopolitical and nationalist tensions were higher.
Second, the social consumption of spectator sports differs quite dramatically in different regions. In the West, it is professional sport, not international sport, that dominates popular consciousness, and with the single exception of cricket, the highest levels of professional sport are all played in the West. International games, particularly the most prestigious in the form of the Olympic Games and the World Cup, offer the rare opportunity for non-Western hosting nations to be at the center of the highest levels of athletic competition. In comparison to the enormous sums (not to mention sociopolitical capital) poured annually into the NBA, the Premier League, or the NHL, the investment involved in hosting the Olympic Games actually looks cheap.
Even today the Olympics carry a degree of prestige in China that Western commentators underestimate, and which makes them highly appealing to grassroots Chinese nationalism. Some commentators might point out that, at least in the developed world, hosting an Olympics does not necessarily increase a country’s international stature if the hosting regime is seen as oppressively autocratic; the Sochi Games, for example, did little for Russia’s reputation in the West. Such arguments overlook the substantial disconnect—amplified, certainly, by Chinese Internet censorship—between perceptions of international stature in China and perceptions of international stature in places like the United States.
Even putting nationalism aside, though, a large number of people in Northern China would probably support an Olympics bid simply because of the infrastructure investment it would generate: transportation networks, internet connectivity, and so on. In the lead-up to 2008, the Chinese government went far beyond the immediate needs of the Olympics to develop Beijing’s urban infrastructure. The same will likely be true of the 2022 Games, which, as noted above, has an obvious connection to the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei development project currently in the works.
Conventional economic wisdom argues that the Chinese economy can achieve sustainable growth only if it moves from an investment-centric model to a consumption-centric one, but the average Chinese citizen’s perception of infrastructure investment is probably more favorable, shaped by years of rapid investment-driven growth. Northern Hebei, in particular, remains a relatively poor region that would benefit from greater state investment. One could argue that these attitudes are poorly informed, but even so, they are more than capable of generating political goodwill towards large infrastructure programs. By comparison, the politics of infrastructure investment in Western economies are much more contentious, perhaps because Western—particularly American—electorates are more cost-conscious and suspicious of state-driven economic development, but also potentially because their economic returns from infrastructure investment have, in recent years, been somewhat ambiguous.
All in all, the Chinese government probably has good reason to believe that the 2022 Games will strengthen, rather than weaken, its domestic standing. In other words, Beijing may have been able to bid for the Games not because of its autocratic nature, but rather because it enjoys, at least on this issue, substantial popular support. In fact, a fully democratic state operating under similar socioeconomic circumstances may very well have done the same thing. We worry that this enthusiasm to host the games is shortsighted, given the Games’ potentially massive ecological costs and the possibility that they will aggravate the Chinese economy’s reliance on investment, but political shortsightedness is hardly unique to autocratic regimes desperate for short-term political payoffs. Especially in recent years, most Western democracies have been guilty of the very same thing, if sometimes in the opposite direction.
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