It all could have been just as beautiful as the Olympic Summer Games were in 2008. The world was awed by the new benevolent superpower, and even the sky in Beijing was unbelievably blue. But nothing will be the same when the Winter Games take place from February 4-20, 2022 – not only because skies are never blue in Beijing in winter.

As the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing draw closer, it has become clear that China’s Zero-Covid policy will be put to a severe test. For the Chinese government, it will be nothing less than about the credibility of its political approach to the pandemic and, therefore, the legitimacy of the harsh and sometimes even brutal measures to contain the virus. Meanwhile, the world is worried, too – politicians, athletes, and economists alike.

Should there be a diplomatic boycott? Will the Games be safe and fair for foreign participants? Will China (and thus the world economy) have to endure increased economic losses after the Games due to a surge of Covid19 cases spurred by the highly contagious Omicron variant? Clouded by an unpredictable pandemic, political tensions, and fears of a negative economic impact, it seems that these Winter Games might not be an event to really look forward to.

Clouded by an unpredictable global pandemic and rigid local measures

China, like other autocracies, loves to host top sports events hoping to improve its reputation and soft power by showing the international community its most polished side, but also its superiority through physical competition (“sports washing”). While Beijing was quite successful in doing this with the Summer Olympic Games in 2008, its plans to repeat this success with the Winter Games are severely hampered by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Even though China has fared quite well with important pandemic indicators (see figure 1), containing the virus could be impossible now under the circumstances, as the Summer Games in Japan have shown – and this was well before the highly contagious Omicron variant showed up for the first time on November 9th, 2021 in South Africa. Even worse,  Chinese vaccines seem to have a low level of effectiveness against Omicron. Meanwhile, foreign vaccines, like BioNTech/Pfizer, are still not admitted in China.

In response to these challenges, Chinese authorities in Beijing have established a “safety bubble” for the Games and their participants, which is supposed to be impenetrable to the outside world – featuring even its own public transport loops. There will be but a few selected spectators. Moreover, all participants must adhere to rigid measures, such as daily tests and the use of the app “MY2022”, which appears to have alarming security gaps and has at least the potential for censoring sensitive terms (e.g. Tian’anmen- or Tibet-related) – with uncertain consequences for the users. This would be a considerable contradiction to the “Olympic Spirit.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, still seems to be quite at ease with the host.

Graph: Daily confirmed cases

Graph: cumulated confirmed cases

Graph: cumulated in four biggest economies

Clouded by rising geopolitical tensions and (discussions on) diplomatic boycott

While the IOC sees no reason to worry about freedom of speech and human rights in China, this is not true for several national governments. China’s relations with Western partners like the U.S. and EU have reached one low point after the other in recent years anyway. The challenges keep coming from fears of subsidized Chinese high-tech acquisitions to trade disputes and a nearly full-fledged trade war to mutual sanctions due to human rights violations and economic coercion to achieve policy goals. Not to mention the most recent rift in EU-China relations about Lithuania’s opening a Taiwan Bureau and Chinese retaliation measures.

Lithuania has therefore decided to diplomatically boycott the Games. This would have been a golden opportunity for the other EU member states to follow the non-binding resolution of the European Parliament from Summer last year and dare a collective diplomatic boycott. However, as usual, EU member states have not been able to find common ground vis-à-vis China. And even though this is “only” about a sports event, albeit one with high symbolic meaning, it shows very well the dilemma of the EU’s policy towards China: there are more and more calls for a one-voice approach towards the new superpower, but meeting with political and national realities in the member states, it rarely works out in practice.

This is a key issue the EU has to really work hard on, especially given the fact that its favored past approach towards China of “change through trade” will not materialize any time soon – at least as long as Xi Jinping sticks to his policy agenda – which might be a very long time. To the contrary, China has embarked on a distinct course of divergence, actively promoting its own developmental, and thus, political model around the globe. The “competition of systems” already believed dead after the collapse of the former Soviet Union has returned and needs a collective answer, rather than individual national ones.

Given this increasingly tense global atmosphere, it is not surprising that the Winter Games might constitute another low point for China’s international relations. Besides a number of EU member states, other western countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, have long since announced their diplomatic boycott of the Games with a clear reference to China’s poor human rights record in Xinjiang – precisely the issue the IOC is trying to flatly ignore. More countries are still at least discussing this option. Instead of restoring at least partially China’s strained international relationships, the Winter Games could turn out to achieve just the opposite – and at a time when China wants “face” so much!

Clouded by fears of the economic impact on China and the world economy

So far, China, with its zero-Covid Policy, has navigated the pandemic rather successfully with low death rates and quick economic recovery, which was also good for the world economy. However, this was only due to extremely strict measures, with a handful of cases leading to the lockdown of whole cities. While this approach may have worked before the appearance of Omicron, the new and highly contagious virus variant puts a big general question mark on it. The Winter Games add an even bigger one.

Even smaller outbreaks have dealt blows to the economy, as factories were shut down and supply chains hampered; the worst-case scenario would be an Omicron mass outbreak in Beijing induced by the Winter Games, spreading to other parts of China. If this was to happen and the Chinese government stuck to its zero-Covid policy, the consequences for the Chinese and the world economy would be harsh since China plays a key role in global trade and supply chains.

Not only for the EU, but China is also a top trade partner in goods. And even though European companies, just like others, are considering or already trying to diversify their supply chains away from China, “the factory of the world” is not so easy to replace. So if it were to be locked down on a larger scale, this would severely shock the global economy and its ongoing recovery. Repercussions would be felt in any corner of the world. However, it is certainly possible that the Chinese government is willing to pay the price for keeping up its zero-Covid promise – especially as the important 20th Party Congress in autumn of this year is under preparation and requires stability above all.

To end on a rather pessimistic note, China and the world would probably have been better off canceling or postponing the Olympic Winter Games. The pandemic would have been a sound and face-saving reason for this.