How the country changed from 2008 to 2022, and how the West lagged behind. From one Olympics to the next we seem more aware of the Chinese threats
Come on Beijing Summer Games in 2008 at the 2022 Winter Olympics: the comparison between the two events 14 years apart reveals everything that has changed in the world. How different is China today, and the perception we have of it. How much weaker is the West, which distrusts Xi Jinping but reveals itself unable to reduce its dependence on made in China. Some emblematic coincidence. The 2008 Games opened as America was about to sink into the mortgage crisis, a turning point in its decline. And in those days Russia was attacking Georgia under the eyes of a helpless George W. Bush because he was mired in too many conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan).
At the 2008 Games, which I followed as a correspondent from Beijing, no one dreamed of imagining a boycott. The People’s Republic was honored by high-level government delegations and VIPs from all over the world. It was the time when we discovered the new superpower in all its glory, and to make itself beautiful, the capital had called international star architects to build spectacular buildings. The abuses against human rights were already visible: a few months before the Games there had been riots in Tibet, crushed with the hard fist of the army. But Western capitalism was in full honeymoon with planet factory, where moreover it was able to delocalize the most polluting productions. In particular, the symbiosis between the American and Chinese economies seemed perfect, a harmonious complementarity. Many in the American establishment theorized that by dint of getting rich the Chinese would become just like us: freer, more democratic.
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The 2022 Winter Games will open up to an unrecognizable world. The mortgage crisis, which widened to become a global financial crash, caused enormous contradictions to explode within the United States: it allowed the election of Barack Obama but fueled a workers’ anger against the damages of globalization, which Donald Trump would have given us. China was the only major economy to survive, using vigorously all the tools of dirigisme and state capitalism. A sort of Chinese epiphany dates back to 2008: the revelation of all Western frailties in the eyes of the Communist leadership. A superiority complex begins to manifest itself, and the rise of autocrat Xi Jinping since 2012 has confirmed an increasingly self-confident ruling class, to the point of arrogance. born in Chinese diplomacy the generation of wolf warriors, with a nationalist and warlike language that sweeps away traditional cautions. From the New Silk Roads to expansionism, including military expansionism in Asia and Africa, a hegemonic project has taken shape.
Covid could derail China’s triumphal march. The final balance is premature, for now Xi is convinced that he has transformed a potential problem into a victory. Continue to pursue an unrealistic Covid zero policy, the complete eradication of the virus, with enormous human costs. The highly armored Games that are about to open are the culmination of this extreme experiment. The appearance of small outbreaks of contagion triggered new lockdowns in big cities like Xian; targeted restrictions hit the ports of Shanghai, Tianjin and Ningbo. Xenophobia is fed from above with official fake news on the infection imported through foreign products. Athletes and coaches live in an isolated bubble. Ticket sales have been closed. The capital, the main seat of the Games and also of the ruling class, surrounded by a cordon of health. Much of the Chinese population, especially rural migrants, will be banned from travel during the holiday of family reunification, the Lunar New Year. All the conditions are in place for Chinese society, after two years of restrictions, to be a pressure cooker ready to explode, but so far no signs of serious social tensions have come down to us.
TOall the previous problems are added to the pandemic: economic growth continues to slow; financial bubbles, especially in the real estate sector, are loose mines; the collapse of the birth rate and the rapid demographic decline cause an aging for which China is unprepared. Addressing these problems together seems almost impossible: shock therapies against speculative bubbles, or for reducing carbon emissions, would be a further brake on growth that Xi cannot afford.
China responds to its hidden weaknesses with a display of self-esteem, which contrasts with the mood of the West: anguished and depressed. From one Olympics to the next we seem more aware of the Chinese threats, more frightened, and at the same time more insecure of ourselves. The diplomatic boycott of these Games – which only means not sending high-ranking government delegations – sees the allies divided (Italy among the countries that do not participate). Trump’s tariffs, various forms of embargoes and sanctions, Biden’s alliance strategy, they have not scratched the war machine of made in China exports. In reverse. Western economies suffer from shortages of products and labor, inflation; shortages range from container ships to truckers. The only thing that is not in short supply is imports from China: just enter a European pharmacy to buy masks, or browse the Amazon catalog, to have confirmation. Xi Jinping has at least so far succeeded in an unlikely feat: has kidnapped 1.4 billion Chinese with the semi-closing of the borders, without weakening the industrial apparatus of his country.
Xi has a sea of problems and the triumphalism of his propaganda must not hide us. But so far the easiest to manage is us Westerners. The historic record of Chinese trade surplus at 676 billion dollars at the end of 2021 closed the second year of the pandemic in a sensational way. In the geopolitical chessboard, Medvedev in 2008 irritated Beijing spoiling the inauguration of the Games with Operation Georgia; today the axis between China and Russia is consolidated and encourages Putin’s aims in Europe.