In the light of the Ukraine war.

On the dark night of 6 March 2008, not far from Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, the main venue for the 2008 Olympics, I was forced into a car by four secret police, hooded, and taken to an unknown location for interrogation. The secret police had printed many articles I had published, including “The Truth About China Before the Olympics”, in which I wrote, “You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.” The co-author, activist Hu Jia was arrested in December 2007 and later sentenced to three and a half years on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” I decided to become his defence attorney, but my license was later revoked. By orchestrating my kidnapping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aimed to silence me before and during the Olympics. A month before the Olympics, two US Congressmen, Chris Smith and Tom Lantos hoped to meet with me and several other activists, but I was placed under house arrest.

Five months later, the Bird’s Nest witnessed the ultimate moment of glory for the CCP. More than 110 heads of state and dignitaries, including the presidents or prime ministers of the United States, France, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Finland, and Belgium, attended the opening ceremony. To date, this Olympic record has not been broken.

Fast forward to 2022: the political centre of China becomes the first city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Yet Beijing was falling from grace: democracies such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia announced a diplomatic boycott because of China’s gross human rights abuses, especially the Uyghur genocide; some refused to come, citing Beijing’s rigid pandemic control measures. Fewer than half of the heads of state who attended the 2008 Olympics attended the 2022 opening ceremony, almost all from dictatorships and countries with poor human rights records. NBC’s broadcast for the opening ceremony in 2022 saw a historic low in viewership, down 43% from the previous Olympics. Some of my activist friends went to NBC’s headquarters and offices to urge it not to broadcast the genocide Olympics.

Covid-19 provided the Chinese government with the perfect excuse to restrict the free access of athletes and international media to Chinese citizens during the Olympics. All 25 sites throughout the Olympic Village were surrounded by barbed wire. More than 30,000 journalists, athletes, coaches, volunteers and other staff were locked in an isolated bubble and could only travel by special vehicles between the sites. The public was instructed not to interact with people in the Olympic vehicles, even if they were “involved in a traffic accident”. Shortly before the opening of the Winter Olympics, a Chinese official warned foreign athletes not to make any remarks that violate Chinese law, i.e. any statements critical of the Chinese government. A special department was set up to monitor athletes’ words and actions, and the cancellation of athletes’ registrations could be a possible punishment. According to the Citizen Lab report, the Chinese government could easily monitor Covid test results, travel information and other personal data through the Olympic app “MY2022”, which also includes a blacklist of 2,422 keywords, including “Tiananmen massacre”, “Xi Jinping” and “Dalai Lama”.

The tone of the Chinese Communist Party has changed. In its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, China prepared a 600-page report with specific promises to improve the rule of law and human rights, guarantee freedom for journalists, and set aside three parks as “demonstration zones”. In 2002, an office was set up to increase the number of English speakers in Beijing to guide tourists during the Olympics. But the year of 2022 saw a campaign of “de-Englishing”, with the original English word “station” and “International Airport” being replaced by the Chinese pinyin. China expelled American journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post in 2020. Hundreds of journalists are still jailed in China, including Bloomberg’s Haze Fan, Australian journalist Cheng Lei, and Zhang Zhan, who covered the original Covid outbreak in Wuhan. Many foreign NGOs that helped promote civil society in China were forced to leave the country since 2016. On the night of the opening ceremony, a reporter from Dutch public radio (NOS) was forcibly interrupted and removed by security guards while filming a live TV segment in Beijing. And this is not an isolated incident.

Many hoped that the 2008 Olympics would help nudge China towards an open society, but the opposite has happened. What occurred between the two Beijing Olympics?

In 2001, four months after Samaranch announced Beijing as the 2008 Summer Olympics host, China officially joined the WTO. China accelerated what would become known as its “economic miracle”, partly due to its “low human rights advantage”––low wages, low welfare, low environmental protection, low freedom.

Between China’s winning of the Olympic bid in 2001 and WTO admission a few months later was 9/11. The terrorist attacks meant that the United States would devote major resources and energy to the Middle East, while shaking hands with a potential strategic rival, China. The CCP unexpectedly became the big winner of 9/11. The West’s prioritization of engagement and trade over human rights concerns was either due to wishful thinking about “economic liberalization leading to political democratization” or because Western politicians and businessmen have been overwhelmed by China’s huge market and profit potential.

A more significant event in 2008 was the global financial crisis, which devastated Western economies and shook the world economic and political landscape. China benefited from a less open financial system, and in 2010 China became the world’s second largest economy; in 2014, the biggest economy when measured by PPP. The Chinese government made more military threats against Taiwan and more provocative moves in the South China Sea. It made little effort to hide the political agenda of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has intensified its infiltration in the West, even meddling in elections in democratic countries through disinformation and bribery. China has increasingly resorted to economic coercion, where rare earth metals, Chinese tourists or consumers could become the CCP’s political tools. Victims could include Taiwan’s pineapples, Norway’s salmon, Australian wine, and recently, Lithuanian beef.

Worse than “wolf warrior diplomacy”, China’s “hostage diplomacy”—actually not diplomatic at all—left two innocent Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in Chinese prison for nearly three years. Three months after China was awarded the Winter Olympics, a poet and publisher Gui Minhai was abducted from Thailand by Chinese secret agents and was forced to renounce his Swedish citizenship under torture. By the way, after winning two Olympic Champions in Beijing, Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel gave one of his gold medals to Gui.

Since 2009, at least 150 Tibetans self-immolated to protest the denial of freedoms for Tibetans, a most tragic record in the history of resistance. Hong Kong in 2008 was still a free city, and most Hongkongers were proud of the Beijing Olympics. Each time I was kidnapped and imprisoned, Hong Kong activists took to the street to call for my release; today, many of those friends are in jail—Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, Chow Hang-tung, “Long Hair”, Joshua Wong—and now, it is my turn to call for their release from my home in exile in the US. The National Security Law in 2020 has almost completely destroyed Hong Kong’s freedom and rule of law. No one in 2008 would have imagined what Hong Kong would look like today.

In 2015, three weeks before Beijing won the 2022 Winter Olympics bid, China rounded up human rights lawyers, hundreds of whom were disappeared, disbarred or convicted. Some are still in prison. Mia Farrow called the 2008 Games the “Genocide Olympics” because of the Chinese government’s shameful role in the Darfur massacre. Last year I wrote “2022 Beijing Olympics to be another genocide-tainted Olympics”. The ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang have been recognized as a “genocide” by numerous scholars, think tanks, media, the Uyghur Tribunal, the US State Department and the Parliaments of Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Lithuania, and others. After failed denials, the Chinese government tried to justify, unsuccessfully, the so-called “re-education centres”, then sanctioned scholars, institutions and lawmakers, and then organized a group of countries to endorse the atrocities.

Soon after 2008, China’s international image plummeted in the free world. In almost all major democracies, more than 70% have unfavourable views on China, and in Australia, Japan and Sweden it exceeds 85%. Only a dozen years ago, in these countries (with the exception of Italy), far more people liked China than disliked it.

It’s hard not to notice the stark differences between the two Beijing Olympics, but it is more important to see their deep connections. Xi Jinping was the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the 2008 Olympics, while the 2022 Winter Games provided a stage for Xi’s ambition and glorification. The 2008 Olympics became a catalyst for the Chinese government’s total surveillance, suppression of dissidents, suppression of minorities, and incitement to statism and nationalism, where no wonder fascism might be a plausible nomenclature.

During the 2008 Olympics, control over petitioners, activists, and dissidents escalated; the number of secret police increased; censorship and stability maintenance systems were strengthened; and persecution of Christians, Falun Gong, Muslims, and other religions intensified. The regime used the Olympics as a “state of exception” to normalize a comprehensive surveillance system and continues to this day. After Xi Jinping came to power, the CCP utilized artificial intelligence, facial recognition, big data, social credit systems, etc., to rapidly establish an unprecedented “high-tech totalitarianism”. Also, it took advantage of dealing with Covid-19 to tighten its total surveillance. By the end of 2022, China could have more than 2.76 billion surveillance cameras.

The year of 2008 could be seen as a critical point, the first year of the “Chinese Dream”. Professor Susan Brownell, author of Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China, says, “The 2008 Beijing Olympics marked China’s emergence as a world power. China believes that it cannot compete with other world powers without hosting the Olympics.” And the world accepted China’s narrative. The Chinese dream is actually the CCP’s statist ambition that does not include freedom for the Chinese people. At its core, it is about using China’s rising economic and military power to maintain political autocracy and exporting “the China Model” to reshape the international order. China has sold its surveillance equipment, comprehensive means of controlling civil society, and anti-democratic ideas.

Tibetans were once able to flee over snowy mountains, but few Tibetans have managed to escape in the past few years. During the 2008 Olympics, human rights defender Ji Sizun held public speeches and applied for a demonstration, for which he was jailed for three years; he was jailed again for his activism and died in custody. Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years after he initiated a petition calling for prioritizing human rights over the Olympics. For the 2022 Olympics, everything is under control and even the victims are forced to smile. The IOC claims that sport should not be politicized. But the truth is that allowing China to host the 2008 Olympics has fuelled the CCP’s determination to violate human rights. When a genocide is taking place, being apolitical is a strong political choice of pleasing the perpetrators.

Beijing knew in advance about Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In early February, 2022, senior Chinese officials told senior Russian officials “not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics”. On the very day of the 2022 Olympic opening ceremony, Putin and Xi Jinping met and made a joint statement to build “no limits” relationship, opposing “the NATO expansion”, “colour revolution”, and interference based on “democracy and human rights”. Three days after the 2022 closing ceremony, Russia brazenly invaded Ukraine, which was plotted to be “the biggest war in Europe since 1945”. The Chinese government has supported Putin in various ways, including refusing to call it an invasion, buying more Russian oil, coal and food, opposing sanctions against Russia, and blaming the US. Chinese authorities suppress anti-war sentiment and pro-Ukraine activism. When the IPC president Andrew Parsons derided Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the Beijing Winter Paralympic opening ceremony, China’s state-run broadcaster didn’t translate and then silenced his remarks. Many would agree with Angela Stent, a Russia specialist and author of Putin’s World: “Putin would not have embarked on this aggression against Ukraine at this time, if he didn’t know that he would have Chinese support.”

The CCP has been supporting almost every dictatorship in the world. The war in Ukraine is strengthening the authoritarian alliance led by China and Russia which has been formed for years. It is not about a strong country invading a weak one, a big country invading a small one, but an authoritarian regime invading a democracy, as is China’s potential—more likely than before—invasion of Taiwan. The undeclared war against liberal democracy is well underway.

In the 14 years between the two Beijing Olympics were the rapidly rising Chinese dictatorship and slowly awakening democracies struck by a financial crisis, Trumpism, and a global pandemic. Allowing the Chinese regime, now “a digital dystopia”, to host the “Genocide Olympics” should become the last carnival of appeasement and complicity.