Beijing 2008 and 2022:two opening ceremonies, two Chinas

Olympic logo showing the theme of "snowflakes" at Beijing 2022 opening ceremony

At the recently concluded opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China once again provided a visual feast for the audience with stunning performances. 

Although the opening ceremony was drastically shortened to around 100 minutes due to the pandemic and the number of performers was strictly limited, the creative team enriched the visuals of the opening ceremony through digital media. As an example, the entire floor of the stadium is an 8K display covering an area of 10,000 square metres. For the display of the Olympic rings, there is an installation called the ‘Ice Cube’, which is also covered with electronic screens.

There were no lasting brilliant fireworks, and even the last Olympic torch was the Olympic cauldron itself. The lighting of the cauldron was completed when the athletes placed the torch on a giant snowflake-shaped device, which slowly rose into the air. “The torch lighting at the opening ceremonies for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games was a rather staid affair”, commented Sarah Cascone, a writer of Artnet News.

However, opening ceremony director Zhang Yimou, who also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, did not consider such a simple arrangement to be uninspired. On the contrary, he believed that the Beijing 2022 opening ceremony could be an “unprecedented” opening ceremony in the history of the Games. 

Zhang told Variety: “We’ve significantly reduced the number of performers, and [instead] use technology to make [the stage] less crowded, but not empty. Technology and new concepts will make it feel full, ethereal and romantic.”

China Yishubao (China Art Daily) described the opening ceremony as the best demonstration of the art historian Winckelmann’s famous phrase ‘Noble Simplicity and Quiet Grandeur’.

Si Xiaonan, a Beijing-based filmmaker who watched the opening live, said, “At first I was disappointed by the simplicity of the opening, but later I could understand the reason for it. More than cultural confidence, the maturity and power of a great nation is reflected in not overstretching social resources and economic power to show off.”

Beijing 2008: An opening ceremony that impressed the world

to show the drummers at Beijing 2008 opening ceremony

The drummers at Beijing 2008 opening ceremony. Credit: U.S. Army

In contrast to the simplicity and serenity of the Beijing 2022 opening ceremony, Beijing 2008 left a very different impression.

The 2008 opening ceremony, which was hailed by several media outlets as the best ever, had over 15,000 performers. The opening drumming performance saw 2,008 soldiers rocking the audience and hundreds of millions of viewers who watched the opening ceremony on television with their unison rhythms and loud shouts.

Reiko Kato Chinen, a member of the International Weightlifting Federation Technical Committee who attended Beijing 2008, tweeted:

“Natural smiles of the drummers after the performance gave me a completely new image of the country. [It] became my great and unforgettable memory.”

Following the drumming performance, thousands of performers showcased movable type printing, traditional Chinese calligraphy and opera, showing the world the history and confidence of China, a great nation with thousands of years of civilisation. 

Dressed as Tang Dynasty women and men, the performers recited famous lines from the Analects of Confucius in a loud voice. At this moment, it seemed that what was presented to the world was not communist China but the splendid Chinese civilisation.

During the second half of the opening ceremony, a giant model of the Earth appeared on the stage. The lights from the auditorium formed a vast universe, and the smiling faces of children from around the world were shown on the live LED screens. Chinese singer Liu Huan and British singer Sarah Brightman stood on top of the Earth model and sang ‘You and Me’ to the crowd. The ethereal and moving melody showed Beijing’s expectations of peace and harmony.

When everyone thought the magnificent opening ceremony could not get any more stunning, a huge torch appeared above the Beijing National Stadium. Once Olympic gymnastics champion Li Ning, suspended by a wire, walked around the edge of the main stadium and eventually lit the main torch. A glorious firework display and exciting music ensued, bringing the whole crowd to its feet.

Why Beijing 2008 Deserves to be Remembered

The opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 was so significant because China today may never be the same as it was that year, and the world is no longer the same as it was then.

After decades of rapid economic development, China of that time was desperate to present a different image to the world. From its government to its people, China wanted to tell the world that it was no longer the poor, closed and backward country but an open, tolerant and powerful one. 

For the past 100 years, the Chinese have looked up to the Western developed countries. And now that the stage has finally come to the land they live in, so they are desperate to be seen and heard.

Linyu Gao, who works in the media industry in China, says, “It was not until the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 that the suffering and frustrations of the Chinese people were completely released in the melody of ‘the Five-Starred Red Flag is flying in the wind’. And the Chinese people presented to the world in such a passionate and exciting way that China had stood up completely on the international stage. The West began to realise the power of China in a real sense.”

The opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 proved to be more than just a lively carnival for the Chinese people at home, it did leave a lasting impression on the world.

James Green, the former minister counsellor for trade affairs US embassy in China, said in a documentary of CNA Insider, “It was evident for those of us in Washington watching the drummers that this was a new kind of power.”

The drummers at the opening ceremony have even been mentioned in American films and TV shows. In the American drama The Brink, the US Secretary of State, played by Tim Robbins, said over the phone about China: “Anyone else sees the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics? Those synchronised drummers are terrifying!”

Certainly, for China’s government leaders, the opening ceremony was not just about showing off their power but also about demonstrating China’s tolerance and openness.

USA Today commented, “Confidence, openness, a country determined to showcase its growing economic talents, a desire to let the world know that China’s future was bright, its culture dynamic and welcoming – these were among the things the Communist Party sought to project when China last hosted the Olympic Games on Aug. 8, 2008.”

In a gesture of openness, Beijing promised that it would protect the rights of journalists from all countries to report freely. And since mobile internet was not yet widely available in China and the infamous internet firewall had not completely isolated the country from the world, the general public still had some room for freedom of expression.

At the same time, China had just slowly emerged from the trauma of the Sichuan earthquake. The gesture of solidarity shown by the Chinese people as they worked together to save lives left people from all over the world with sympathy for China.

Even though China was also facing accusations of restrictions on freedom and human rights abuses, world leaders still turned up at the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008. Images of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush shaking hands at the opening ceremony were also celebrated.

Beijing 2022: A Different China and A Different World

Fourteen years later, China has changed dramatically.

In 2008, China’s economy had just surpassed that of Japan. In 2022, China’s economy will already be three times larger than Japan’s and three-quarters the size of the US economy. Today China has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, its own space station and Mars rover, and advanced internet technology.

Although China still has quite a long way to go before it becomes a developed country, China in 2022 has indeed become a potential superpower that can compare with the US in many ways – economically, militarily and technologically. 

This is probably why, after watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, a large number of Chinese audiences expressed their understanding of the ‘simple, environmentally friendly’ concept of the opening ceremony. Many Chinese people felt that China no longer needed an Olympic event or an opening ceremony to prove its power.

However, China’s society has not become more open, unlike its growing economic and military power.

Comparing Beijing 2008 with Beijing 2022, BBC journalist Stephen McDonell referred to the many spaces being ‘Vanishing’. He said, “If a returning visitor dug a little deeper, they might discover that tolerance towards non-Communist Party endorsed ideas has shrunk considerably.”

Since 2012, when top leader Xi Jinping came to power, the social environment in China has taken a serious step backwards. A more authoritarian government and a more radical populism are both diametrically opposed to the image China wanted to present in 2008. 

to show China in 2022

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Credit: jannewittoeck

President Xi has publicly stated in a speech that the Chinese people are now able to see the world on an equal footing. However, the majority of the Chinese population, influenced by the state-controlled media, is perhaps not ready to see the world on an equal footing, but rather to hate it.

Wolf Warrior 2, a Chinese film released in 2017, has inspired patriotic feelings among the Chinese public but also inspired many extreme populists. The Chinese government’s aggressive foreign policy has been jokingly referred to as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”.

The free spaces of public opinion in China have also decreased dramatically. In today’s Chinese society, known as the “Internet Cultural Revolution”, the neutral media or opinion leader can be reported by netizens for a single word. Social media platforms are quick to block these dissident internet accounts. Many Chinese people boycott the celebration of Western holidays but are happy to see foreigners celebrating Chinese New Year.

The US-China trade war, the Communist Party’s policies on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the Chinese government’s concealment during the early days of Covid-19 have also made the world view China differently than it did in 2008. Arthur Dong, a professor at Georgetown University said, “Perceptions about China’s government have hardened.” 

The world of 2022 is also different from that of 2008. 

Rising anti-globalisation waves and conservatism have cast a pall over governments’ efforts to promote understanding and inclusion. The rapid growth of social media has increased access to information, but the algorithm-based content on social media has somehow reinforced preconceptions. 

The world today is not the harmonious and peaceful place people once expected, but rather one of suspicion and hostility. The world seems to be slipping into a new cold war.

Against this backdrop, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games kicked off. Many Western countries, including the United States, have imposed a diplomatic boycott on the Games. 

Although the boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics was less severe than that of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the opening ceremony of Beijing 2022 was somewhat embarrassing in contrast to the Chinese government’s propaganda that “we have friends everywhere”. The only high-profile leader of a major power to attend the opening ceremony, Vladimir Putin, is now being sanctioned by democratic countries for ordering the invasion of Ukraine.

Beijing is certainly aware that being isolated from the world is not good for its own development. At a meeting of the Communist Party officials in 2021, President Xi Jinping stressed that China should further strengthen and improve its international communications and strive to project a “credible, lovable and respectable image of China”.

The opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics was a good example of this. Without what might be considered aggressive performances, Beijing seemed particularly gentle in winter. The children’s light-hearted dancing and singing, and the snowflakes falling gently in the National Stadium, showed that Beijing is trying to shed its ‘Wolf Warrior’ label. As the Western media accuse China of authoritarian politics, its leaders want to keep a low profile.

Before the Winter Olympics, Beijing also announced that it would allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang after the Olympics, but stressed that such visits must be “friendly” and have no “presumption of guilt”.

Credible, Lovable, and Respectable: How far is China to that day?

We certainly can’t expect one Winter Olympics to turn the world’s perception of China around, and the Winter Olympics are far less influential than the Summer Olympics. With a total of 91 countries and regions participating in the Beijing Winter Olympics, Beijing 2022 has not received as much attention compared to the 204 participating delegations in 2008.

However, regardless of the impact of the Winter Olympics themselves, what will really change China’s image cannot be a grand international event but the top-down social environment of China. 

Showing the world a credible, lovable and respectable China cannot be achieved by state-controlled media through foreign propaganda. Instead, China needs to give everyone the right and freedom to express their opinions, so that people feel respected and learn to respect others.

Only when China embraces the world with a truly open stance can the world be willing to embrace China. 

Of course, the Chinese people should be proud of their country’s achievements. Its long history and splendid civilisation are both pivotal components of human society. But this pride should be based on respect for others, without inferiority complex or arrogance.

When the Chinese people do not have to live in a social environment where they are condemned for their words and everyone is at risk, and when the Chinese government can accept criticism openly and honestly, then China can truly become credible, lovable and respectable. 

That day may be a long way off, but one should hope for it. After all, hope is the only beacon that can lead people to the light in the darkest of times.