The Olympics are China’s chance to show off its vision for the future

China is looking at the games as its showcase for not just its athletes and the country’s culture, but also its technological sophistication and its investments in the future.

The Olympics are China’s chance to show off its vision for the future

The 2022 Winter Olympics have evolved into more than just a test for China’s ability to pull off a massive event

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Today marks both the beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympics and China’s second-ever time hosting the event, with Beijing becoming one of only 10 cities to host more than one Olympics Games.

More so than perhaps any other country, China is looking at the games as its showcase for not just its athletes and the country’s culture, but also its technological sophistication and its investments in the future. But the lengths the country now goes to maintain control over online and offline behavior have put an uncomfortable spotlight on China’s Olympic preparations.

A lot has changed since Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. China’s status in the world has risen substantially, reflecting its vast economic and geopolitical might and its chillier relationship with the U.S. and Western world at large.

  • Among the most pronounced of these changes is China’s commitment to tech and its intense desire to be seen at the forefront of innovation.
  • Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen the rise of some of the world’s largest and most powerful tech companies out of China, from Alibaba to Tencent.
  • As my colleague Zeyi Yang noted earlier this week, China is using the games to hammer this point home. It has deployed cocktail-pouring robots in the Olympic Village, installed futuristic remote-controlled beds for visitors and implemented its new digital currency system, eCNY, for its first international test.

There’s profound wariness regarding China’s tech and track record. The country’s state surveillance apparatus and its tight control over internet activity and displays of dissent have been a focal point of international concern with the 2022 games, in addition to mounting tensions with the CCP over its growing list of geopolitical and humanitarian crises.

  • China’s official (and mandatory) health and safety mobile app for Olympic athletes was embroiled in security and privacy concerns, after a report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab highlighted encryption vulnerabilities in the software. The app also contains censored keywords.
  • U.S. government officials are officially boycotting the games over China’s human rights record, while Team USA is advising its athletes to use burner phones while in the country to avoid potential unwanted surveillance.
  • China has outlined rules for visiting athletes, saying they are subject to Chinese speech laws. That has led to national team warnings, including from the U.S. and Canada, about potential legal trouble for anyone who decides to use the 2022 Winter Games as a stage to express political or social opinions the CCP may find unsavory.

China’s COVID protocols dance with dystopia. The Olympic Village will deploy a so-called closed-loop system that Chinese officials will use to maintain an ultra-strict health and safety regimen and ensure athletes are abiding by local laws and regulations.

  • The aforementioned mobile app will be used to govern athletes’ ability to move about the village, using evidence of negative PCR test results similarly to the controversial green QR code system China has used to control the movement of its citizens and dictate quarantine orders.
  • China’s recently deployed 5G network will be the only way to access the internet inside the Olympic Village, with Chinese officials claiming that athletes will be able to bypass standard restrictions imposed to access censored content, like American social media apps, using special SIM cards.
  • But foreign officials are concerned that even this activity will be surveilled and may subject athletes and other team members to potential legal issues. "It should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked," the U.S. Olympic organizing committee wrote in a technical advisory document last month.

The 2022 Winter Olympics have evolved into more than just a test for China’s ability to pull off a massive event with nightmarish logistics and health complications, in the middle of a pandemic, no less. They're also now a demonstration of just how well, or poorly, China’s specific vision for the future — of sports, technology, communication and everything in between — gel with the rest of the world.

A version of this story also appeared in today's Source Code; subscribe here.

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