The Chinese were never skiers. In their long history, they have moved their capital around the country, built palaces and fortresses according to the strategic needs of the emperors in relation to the “barbarian” outside world. They never chose the location of their capital for beauty or pleasure. The country’s battle and defense strategy against northern invaders and adversaries also influenced the creation of “modern” Beijing, with its Forbidden City, artificial lakes and river channels. It was built on the edge of the desert. Construction started in 1403 and lasted until 1420, when the Emperor Yongle moved capital of the Ming Dynasty from Nanjing to the Capital of the North, Beijing. Just four years later, Yongle died fighting the Mongols at the northern border of his empire. His son, Emperor Hongxi, gave the order to move the capital back to Nanjing, but died of illness before that could happen.
Which is all to say that the capital of modern- day China was never considered by much of anyone to be in a great location – a flat, arid landlocked place with little to recommend it.
But Beijing – except for a brief period during reign of the nationalist Chiang Kai Shek – has remained the capital of China. When Mao Zedong moved into town in 1949, he wanted to demolish all the city walls and change the imperial city into a modern socialist capital with large avenues and squares, more appropriate for military parades and public gatherings. With Deng Xiaoping, the city started to grow and to develop again, but military parades to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic were still a major public event in the city. Beijing was mostly a stage for Emperors’ and Dictators’ symbolic political events, not spontaneity.
There have been only a couple of times in China’s contemporary history that the streets of Beijing filled in an unplanned fashion. The first time was in 1989, when students occupied Tiananmen Square with most of the city supporting them. We know how that ended. The second time was on a hot night in July 2001, when the International Olympic Committee decided that the 2008 Summer Olympics would take place in Beijing. It was an incredible night. At 10 p.m. there was nobody on the street. Everybody in Beijing was at home watching the news out of Moscow, where the International Olympic Committee was voting. It was summer and hot, with a heavy storm cloud hanging low above the Chinese capital. But when the news arrived – Beijing had been award the Olympics! – the city exploded. It was as if a huge earthquake had hit Beijing. Everybody ran outside as fast as he could. In a matter of seconds, Beijingers flooded the streets, grabbing the first available means of transportation, and raced towards Tiananmen. People were hugging each other, waving the flags; young men took off their shirts, showing the words “Beijing 2008” (“北京 2008”) scrawled on their chests. An hour later, when millions filled the streets, a local paper started to distribute its one-page special edition, printed with the joyous phrase of “Beijing won!” – nothing else. The people in the square were in heaven. Just a few hours before this explosion of joy and spontaneous celebration, which lasted till early morning, rumor had it that the Olympics might go to Toronto. So, in order to secure a vote for Beijing, Condoleezza Rice, then-security adviser to president Bush, unexpectedly reached out in support, saying that giving the Olympic games to Beijing would be good for Chinese democracy.
This was in July 2001. Democracy did not come in the seven years between the announcement and Beijing’s superbly organized games. It did not come in the years after the Olympics. And it will not come with Beijing’s second stint as host to the Olympic games in winter 2022.
This time there is no illusion that the Olympics will open the door to democracy. If there was hope 14 years ago that China would be forced to loosen political control, the situation today is different. The authoritarian business model that Beijing has been implementing for decades is showing good economic results. So good that western societies are now learning from the Red East, introducing more controls and surveillance on its own citizens.
And so China has now been awarded the Winter Olympics without a blink of a (western) eye, getting this second chance at hosting despite the fact that its human rights record is still dismal – worse even – and despite the fact that Beijing’s Olympic area never had, nor will have, any natural snow.
In 2002, when I was still working as a foreign correspondent in Beijing, China was already a bizarre place. The country’s wealth was starting to show everywhere. In the outskirts of Beijing, the rich were building villas in imitation of famous European landmarks. Restaurants and private clubs were flourishing, and drinking expensive wines became a status symbol. In 2002, Beijing got its first ski resort, built on the east side of the city, near the Great Wall of China. One day, my then-friend Paolo Bruni, the Italian ambassador in Beijing, and I decided to go and try it. Anna Jaguaribe, Paolo’s wife, prepared us a basket with some delicious snacks and a bottle of wine. When we arrived, we found a good number of people on a short slope – perhaps 400 yards long – covered with artificial snow. It was funny. We skied down a few times, but since there was no way to gain more speed or try out our slalom, we sat down on the balcony of the wooden chalet, opened our basket, and ate the snacks and wine. We hadn’t actually expected to do any serious skiing on that day, but sitting on the benches of the imitation Swiss chalet, I wondered where this odd little experiment in winter sports could possibly be headed. Beijing seemed as unsuited to skiing as to faux Italianate villas.
Well, two days ago, when Beijing was awarded the 2022 Olympics, the clever politicians in Beijing have convinced us all to set aside rationality with respect to its record on human rights and, now, winter sports as well.
There is nothing, they seemed to say, that can’t be overcome or artificially created with political will — mountains, parks, forests, climate, lakes, rivers, snow, yearly seasons. Anything natural is over. There is nothing that cannot be built, be it the islands in the South China Sea or the Winter Olympics. China crushed Kazakhstan in its bid for the Games, despite Kazakhstan’s abundance of high, natural mountains, great landscapes and real snow. But the International Olympic Committee refused the smaller country’s natural suitability and opted for the Chinese model. In my opinion, the Chinese will never stop bidding for any international events which will help to consolidate their position on the world stage. But why does the world play into the illusion?