During the 2008 Olympics, Beijing felt electric. The world was dazzled by games that went off more or less seamlessly: Factories in surrounding areas shut down, taming the city’s noxious pollution; cars to the venues whizzed along dedicated lanes; for three weeks, all the cab drivers seemed to speak English (I still don’t know how they pulled that off).
Journalists from around the world filed stories big and small, about demonstrators denied access to official protest zones set up by the Chinese government; visits to rock clubs and opera performances; and a trip to eat Beijing duck with American gymnasts. I arrived on a tourist visa in March 2008 to look for work as a freelance writer, and made a few contributions to the genre, but mostly I soaked in the scene: giant screens set up all over the city to show the games and parties everywhere. One night I was reporting on a Budweiser-sponsored nightclub in the heart of Beijing when American swimmer Michael Phelps, fresh off his gold-medal sweep, strolled in with his pals.
The 2022 Olympics couldn’t feel more different, with Covid precautions and a restricted reporting environment essentially cutting the games off from the surrounding country. Since November, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) has complained that Beijing has made it difficult for international media to cover the run-up to the games. NBC is covering them from Connecticut. Journalists who do travel to cover events will be part of a “closed loop” of venues, transportation, dedicated hotels—and uncensored internet. In the past week, two Beijing residents told me that locals have been advised that if they get in a fender-bender with an official Olympic vehicle, they shouldn’t get out to squabble over who’s at fault, lest the Olympic bubble burst and a visitor introduces a case of Covid into the city.
Looking back, the years around the 2008 Olympics may have been the best time to be a foreigner wanting to understand China. The country was eager to put on a progressive face, and many visitors left with the impression that the country was on an irreversible path to openness and that a new spirit of global citizenship was emerging. Little did anyone know, the technological advances of the following decade would sweep much of that optimism away
The 2008 Olympics presented China as a modern rising power, but many of the technological transformations were yet to come. China Mobile cell towers and solar panels were popping up in rural areas. You had to go to Hong Kong to buy an iPhone. WeChat—an app now used for everything from paying bills to accessing government services to hailing taxis—was still more than two years away. Virtually all transactions were in cash.
In that era, most foreigners didn’t give a second thought to surveillance. Online, dissidents could nimbly jump over the Great Firewall to Western platforms or engage in innuendo or wordplay—remember the mythical internet creature grass-mud horse?—to spread their messages.
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Offline, journalists figured out ways to travel around the country, aided by loosened rules around foreign reporting. “In 2008, the authorities perceived that they needed us more than we needed them and proceeded accordingly,” says a longtime correspondent for a US media outlet who covered the 2008 games.
Journalists needed to be mindful of protecting their sources and avoiding local officials who didn’t take kindly to strangers poking around, but fairly simple tricks were often enough to slip through the cracks: leaving your cell phone at home and calling sources on pay phones; meeting in hotels or restaurants in another city; slumping in the backseats of taxis.
Today, visiting athletes from several countries have been advised to use burner phones, and taking clean devices is common—though not always followed—advice for anyone heading to China for a business or academic trip. Digital services have been adopted with such gusto it’s almost impossible to operate without a cell phone loaded with WeChat—which also means it’s almost impossible to get around without leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs anywhere you go. The last time I traveled extensively in China, in 2016, store clerks were confused, disgusted, and sometimes had to call someone else over if I wanted to pay with cash. Friends who ordered taxis for me refused the bills I tried to hand them.
And pandemic control measures have been “Big Brother’s best friend,” in the words of one correspondent. To get around China today you need a health app, used to scan a QR code to enter shopping centers and large apartment complexes or to take public transportation. There are reports that results may have been manipulated to keep dissidents from traveling. And in a member survey by the FCCC, 52 percent of respondents said they “were told to leave a place or denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no risk.”
“The 2008 games were, in effect, the end of the analog era in China. It was a period when the police—and the government more broadly—was on its back foot in terms of dealing with technology,” says Evan Osnos, who lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013 as a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker. “As a journalist, that meant that we had this vast terrain geographically of places you could go, and also intellectually, a realm of people you could talk to, and be reasonably confident that they would not be getting in trouble for talking to you.”
It’s easy to forget how on edge China was in the lead-up to the Olympics—and how much access foreign press was granted when challenges arose. Protests broke out in Lhasa soon after I arrived in March, and foreign media outlets printed eyewitness accounts. Then, on May 12, less than three months before the Opening Ceremony, I was sitting at my desk at a copywriting job when the room started to move. The tremor we felt was the result of an earthquake 1,000 miles away in Sichuan. The scale of destruction was horrific, and citizens were angry about the poor quality of school construction that led to so many children dying.
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Foreign journalists turned up in droves. I took a train to the provincial capital of Chengdu, where I spoke to a doctor who worked for days on end at a hospital across the street from a school that collapsed. We met at a restaurant outside the city, where we ate bird heads, a local delicacy consumed by holding the head with plastic gloves and sucking the meat off the bone. As I tried to eat like it was the most normal thing in the world, she told me that the hospital sustained so much damage they had to see patients in tents outside the building. They worked endless days, subsisting on instant noodle packets eaten dry because potable water was scarce. After a few days, they were able to brush their teeth with trucked-in bottles of water.
I can’t imagine attempting a similar trip today, which is a shame because the need for understanding China has only increased in recent years. Many in the West have looked with increasing alarm at the country’s authoritarian turn under President Xi Jinping, the walk back of democracy in Hong Kong, and an ongoing campaign of surveillance, detention, and cultural assimilation in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang. But just as reporting on these and other stories becomes more crucial, reporting now often happens from overseas, by parsing social media posts or satellite data. And at its worst, it can lead to hyperbole and confusion, such as when a patchwork of individual credit-scoring systems spiraled into a dystopian all-encompassing social credit system in Western media accounts.
Osnos, whose Age of Ambition won a National Book Award in 2014, says the kind of textured on-the-ground reporting that went into his book would be nearly impossible to undertake now. In one instance, he traveled to a small village to see Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and activist who represented women who defied China’s one-child policy (and whose story would take a dramatic turn a few years later when he took refuge in the US Embassy). Police stopped Osnos and refused to allow the meeting to take place, but when his taxi driver learned what the commotion was about, the driver didn’t bounce Osnos from the cab and speed away. Instead, the driver took him to a nearby village where local family-planning officials were enacting a form of house arrest on the families of women who did not submit to forced sterilization or pay a fine for having more than one child.
By 2008, American internet giants were already weighing the costs of doing business in China. Yahoo was battered by criticism for censoring search results and sharing information about dissidents with Chinese authorities. (The company pulled the last of its services last November.) Google shut down its censored search engine in 2010, after years of scrutiny.
Since then, US lawmakers have increasingly pressured companies to move supply chains out of China, and more platforms have left the Chinese market, most recently LinkedIn and Grindr. At the same time, there’s been a severing of academic and cultural ties that has left the US and China without a lot of ways to project soft power.
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The ranks of foreign journalists are increasingly thin because the Chinese government has held up or rejected applications, in part a response to the Trump administration cutting Chinese journalist visas and requiring some to register as foreign agents. At least 22 international journalists were unable to renew their press cards last year, according to the FCCC. Those who do manage to stick around often face online harassment and trolling.
“It’s heartbreaking,” a Chinese friend told me. When we met, he was a music promoter in Beijing, bringing over cool acts like Peaches and the Jesus and Mary Chain. After the 2008 Olympics, foreign students and young people streamed into China. It was a time of vibrant cultural exchange, and many young Chinese people were open to the West. Today digital media has incubated a generation of “little pinks,” strident young nationalists who reject all foreign influence.
Of course, a Beijing that privileges Chinese people isn’t a bad thing. As an expat in Beijing, it could be far too easy to be a big fish in a small pond, with some icky implications like the “rent a white guy” phenomenon. Beijing was fun, but it wasn’t really ours. But as China becomes more isolated, both physically and digitally, it’s harder to have the kind of free-flowing interactions that let people find common ground. Instead, there’s rising suspicion, exactly when China and the West need to understand each other and find ways to manage simmering tensions.
Just like 14 years ago, the Olympic Games kicked off in Beijing with a visually striking Opening Ceremony by director Zhang Yimou. But the games themselves, like the country, will be sanitized and closed off. That officially sanctioned version doesn't leave room for the messiness, personalities, and ambitions—the stories that can tell us what China wants and where it's going.
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