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The significance of Beijing hosting both the Summer and Winter Olympics


Next week, Beijing will become the first city in Olympic history to have ever hosted both the Summer and Winter Games. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch tells us why China thinks that's a big deal, even if the United States and a handful of other countries are protesting China's human rights record by not sending officials.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: If you watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Games, you probably remember it for its wow factor.


RUWITCH: It started with a performance by 2,008 drummers banging and chanting in unison in China's Bird's Nest National Stadium. Here's part of how NBC covered it.


MATT LAUER: Bob, a nation of 1.3 billion putting on a show like this - and people at home are not alone if they're saying it's both awe-inspiring and perhaps a little intimidating. But they told these drummers earlier in a rehearsal to smile more, and that's taken some of the edge off of it.

RUWITCH: Looking back, the commentators were onto something. The 2008 games were, for China, about sending a message at home and to viewers abroad, saying, we've arrived. Susan Brownell is an expert on sports in China at St. Louis University.

SUSAN BROWNELL: That was really supposed to mark China's emergence as an equal nation on the footing with the strong developed nations of the world.

RUWITCH: That it arguably did. The games came off without a hitch, and China basked in the glory of winning more gold medals than any other country. But something else happened.

BROWNELL: Those games did succeed in convincing certainly an American audience, because I was in the U.S. then, that China was a strong power, which then was a threat to the U.S.

RUWITCH: Fast forward 14 years, and the U.S. has soured further on China. The Biden administration is staging a diplomatic boycott over what it calls genocide and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region. Several other countries have joined. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch says athletes are conscious of the differences between then and now, too.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: I think there's a very different perception now of the Chinese government's agenda, and it's a much less rosier, I think, feel-good affair.

RUWITCH: So if 2008 was China's coming out party and fulfilled its goal of hosting the Olympics, what's 2022 to Beijing? According to historian Xu Guoqi of the University of Hong Kong...

XU GUOQI: This is going to be Xi Jinping's game.

RUWITCH: China's leader Xi is on the cusp of a norm-breaking third term in office and wants the prestige. The pandemic only raises the stakes. In his calculus, the risks are far outweighed by the potential gains, according to Xu.

XU: For 2008, the Chinese begged the whole world to pay attention to China, to respect China. Now, with this game, they told the whole world, China is here. China is going to be powerful, to be rich. You come to us - fine. If you don't come - fine, too. That's a just totally different mindset.

RUWITCH: The diplomatic boycott and criticism over human rights probably won't matter much in the end, he says.

XU: As long as China's economy keep growing, as long as China is a stable nation, as long as Western countries don't improve themselves dramatically, everything is going to be fine for China.

RUWITCH: The opening ceremony is next Friday. Film director Zhang Yimou, who created the 2008 spectacle, is in charge again. He told state TV, the show will amaze the world and reflect China's cultural confidence. Details of the performance are being kept secret, though, and it's not clear if there will be any drummers this time.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.