Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 1 January 2022



The spectacular Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, billed as China’s coming out party, told a story of the country’s dazzling imperial past and its promising high-tech future.

Mao Zedong didn’t get a mention. The epic narrative, choreographed by the celebrated movie director Zhang Yimou, jumped straight from Confucius, scroll painting and Tai Chi to Chinese astronauts. Zhang blacked out most of the 20th century—including Mao’s revolution and the tumultuous years that followed.

All this is quite an irony given that the political commissar of those 2008 games was none other than Xi Jinping himself, then a rising political star and now the country’s paramount leader.

Xi venerates Mao. In Xi’s China, speaking ill of the Mao era is condemned as a grave ideological error—an act of “historical nihilism.” Indeed, Xi owes much of his prestige to Mao: his father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the Great Helmsman’s top lieutenants, which makes him a leading member of the “Red Aristocracy.”

And China is once again in the grip of such strident ideas. The reforming trends that seemed to be taking China in a more liberal direction running up to those​ summer Games 13 years ago have been dramatically reversed. This raises the question: Was the 2008 show just an elaborate hoax?

Maybe so. Back then, China was still an emerging economy. It needed the capitalist West and its technologies to develop, so it made sense to allay fears about the country’s rise by harking back to China’s glorious civilization and ignoring the traumas of its recent past. Zhang’s show highlighted the four great Chinese inventions that made the modern world —paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. By implication, it seemed to be suggesting, a China now pursuing ambitions in space would help propel humanity to the next level of development.

Hence, the 2008 Olympic slogan: “One World, One Dream.”Zhangam.”Zhang Yimou Photographer: Gilles Sabrie/Bloomberg

Altogether, China spent $43 billion on an Olympic public relations spectacle that announced, as the New York Times put it at the time: “We mean no harm.”

So given China’s internal crackdowns and external pugnaciousness, what will the message of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics be? As in 2008, the venue will be the Bird’s Nest stadium and Zhang is the director. But almost everything else has changed.

China has grown wealthy and powerful and no longer feels the need to sugar-coat itsmessages.ages. Xi boasts that “the East is rising and the West is declining.” This newfound assertiveness has provoked precisely the response that the 2008 Games were intended to avoid: Pew surveys show views of China are at historic lows both in the West and among China’s Asian neighbors. But now Beijing doesn’t seem to care.

The U.S. is leading a diplomatic boycott in protest of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Muslims have been imprisoned or worse. And because of Covid-19, international spectators are barred from attending.

Zhang, meanwhile, has stopped making the kind of art house movies that propelled him to international fame; his latest project is a “patriotic” sniper movie set in the Korean War.

The Winter Olympics will be one of the top China stories of 2022. One way or another, it will offer clues on where China is headed next—and how the world will respond.

Here are three other big stories to watch this year in China:

Power politics​

In 2021, Xi succeeded in rewriting Chinese Communist Party history to place himself on a pedestal alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Toward the end of 2022,​ the 20th Party Congress will almost certainly confer on him the right to rule indefinitely after his second term as party leader expires. Deng instituted term limits to avoid the kind of turmoil that engulfed China under Mao’s one-man rule. Whether Xi eventually hands over the reins, ordiesins, ordies in office like Mao, the prospect of a chaotic battle for succession seems likely.

The property bubble

To bolster his claim to rule for life, Xi is promoting a Mao-like egalitarianism under the slogan of “common prosperity.” As part of that program, he has sought to deflate one of the biggest property bubbles in history. “Houses are for living in, not for speculation,” is his mantra. But Xi is playing with fire: real estate accounts for more than one-quarter of China’s GDP. Can he make home ownership more affordable without collapsing the property market and tanking the economy? That may be the biggest economic question for China—and the world—in 2022.

The omicron threat

Alone among countries battling the worst pandemic in a century, China is sticking with its “zero-Covid” strategy, tracking down every infection even if that means closing a port because a single mariner tests positive. Other “zero-Covid” countries, including Australia and Singapore, gave up the effort in the face of the more transmissible Delta variant. But Omicron is hugely​ more infectious than delta, and China is now stuck. It’s population has almost no natural immunity. It’s home-grown vaccines aren’t as effective against omicron as mRNA shots. Plus, China has trumpeted the success of its “zero-Covid” policy as evidence that it’s system of government outperforms the U.S. and other Western democracies. Can China keep omicron out? If not, how will it manage not just the potential healthcare crisis, but the political fallout?

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