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A nation must think before it acts.
The assessments and conclusions in this analysis are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Despite unmistakable structural similarities in the geopolitical environment, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics that begin on February 4th will not become Berlin 1936. There will be no post-Olympic pause, no global goodwill bounce, and no thaw in Sino-American tensions after these Winter Olympic games because China does not aim for these outcomes.
The Nazi approach to leverage the 1936 Olympics for positive propaganda and influence by attraction does not match the Chinese strategy with this year’s Olympics. Instead, China seems determined to project economic and ideological superiority in a manner calibrated to influence by coercing adherence and grudging respect.
Not since the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games has a host country been one of three or more Great Powers actively competing against one another globally to project national power, attain divergent interests, and increase influence with other states. As at Berlin in 1936, Beijing 2022 promises to be an intensely competitive Olympics well beyond the fields of friendly strife, and it will be contested at a geopolitical moment without historical parallel in the post-World War II era.
Like Nazi Germany in mid-1936, China in early-2022 is a newly acknowledged Great Power eyed warily by neighbors and with rapidly growing economic prowess and unmistakable grievances against the long-dominant Great Power and many of the international rules, norms and procedures preferred by that dominant state. In 1936, Germany’s dyadic rival was Great Britain; today, China’s rival is the United States.
Multipolar Great Power Competitive eras with one or more rivalrous dyads featuring a relative power transition within them have over the past 500 years involved at least one period of very destructive, direct military clashes between the Great Powers 75% of the time, although not yet during the 75-year history of nuclear weapons. Thus, they are extremely dangerous eras.
Yet the structural geostrategic similarities between 1936 and 2022 are balanced by a significant difference in the national approach to these respective Olympic moments. Nazi Germany publicized its economic prowess while masking its ideological aims in a way to influence other states by attraction. China’s unfolding approach to these 2022 Winter Olympics suggests it cares less about increasing influence by attraction and more about influence through coercive dominance.
For Nazi Germany, the Berlin Summer Olympics were a vital global propaganda opportunity. Weimar Germany secured the games in 1931, but Adolf Hitler almost dropped them until his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, changed the Fuhrer’s mind by arguing that the Olympic setting was ideal for promulgating a positive global image of the Nazi system.
The Nazis generated a holistic, proactive publicity framework to make the Reich appear powerful and attractive. The Propaganda Ministry successfully wooed the many Olympic Committees contemplating boycotts over Nazi religious and ethnic policies by re-instating several token Jewish athletes to the German national team. It then led choreographed tours for visiting athletes, journalists, and dignitaries around venues across Germany that had been sanitized of Nazi propaganda and persecuted minorities. The Ministry also funded renowned German filmmaker and actress Leni Riefenstahl to generate the official narrative of the games in the film Olympia which advanced Nazi international image-making to a high point during 1937-38.
Nazi Germany attained its propaganda aims admirably. Global praise for the German system followed. New York Times sports reporter Arthur Daily gushed, “Perfect in setting, brilliant in presentation and unparalleled in performance, the Olympic Games of 1936 stand apart in history as the greatest sports event of all time.” Less than six months after Hitler’s re-occupation of Rhineland, he presented his Reich as a peace-loving and reliable member of the family of nations. The Nazi messaging coup bought a couple years of international goodwill, especially with its main Great Power rival in London. There, a smitten British government initially saw the Berlin Games as an “Olympic Pause” in growing Anglo-German tensions and thought the precedent might produce similar results if Tokyo got the 1940 Summer Games, withdrawing its bid and supporting the Japanese 1940 one as a result.
China took a similar approach toward influence by attraction when it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Results then were mixed at best. Beijing received some accolades for organizing a well-regarded sporting spectacle but found this positive message smothered by extensive external media focus on the plight of a restive Tibet, air and water pollution across China, and China’s restrictive foreign journalist policies.
The geopolitical structure was different in 2008, with China perceived as in impressive economic juggernaut but not yet at Great Power. That perception changed during a de-facto Great Power competition from 2008-2015 as Beijing (and Moscow) took a series of assertive economic, diplomatic, and security actions declaring its status as a Great Power. These established China as a peer of the United States and with a resolve to challenge the norms and rules Washington preferred for the international system. Washington finally got the memo, acknowledging formal, multipolar Great Power Competition as the dominant geopolitical framework in the December 2017 National Security Strategy.
Apropos of its top-table geopolitical status, China has been strongly signaling that it does not need to prove its Great Power bona fides and has no interest in wooing international goodwill or attracting more friends. Instead, Beijing seems headed toward an eighteen-day Winter Olympic event that confirms economic prowess, organizational efficiency, and ideological superiority in a manner that coerces future influence rather than attracting it from new admirers.
Beijing won its bid to host these Winter Olympics in 2015 mainly due to economic prowess. The only formal challenger, Almaty in Kazakhstan, lost the vote because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considered the Kazaks an exceptionally risky bet to fund organizing costs that had reached $40 billion for the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, scaring off all other western bidders. China would proudly afford the bills, and the rest of the world knew it.
COVID-19 now gives Beijing top-cover to limit visiting athlete and journalist access to the rest of the country – something most China observes believe Beijing would have pursued anyway. The Games will feature a self-contained “COVID-19 free bubble” so that athletes have access only to their living spaces, competitive spaces, and official transit. Spectators will be minimal and foreign visitors have been waived off. China, it seems, wishes to impress with its ability to organize these Olympics in accord with its two-year mandate for a “zero-COVID China.” It holds to this objective despite the fact that many western doctors believe the Omicron variant will make an appearance during the Olympics due to its perniciously high transmissibility and often subtle symptoms.
In late 2021, several countries, including the United States, announced that they would send an athletic delegation but would conduct a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games. The boycotts are in protest of China’s treatment of its Muslim, Buddhist, and politically restive communities in Xinjiang Province, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Unlike the Nazis before the 1936 Olympics, China took no substantive steps, even minor ones, to modify these objectionable ethnic policies, rejecting outside efforts to meddle in sovereign Chinese matters and ceding the negative international publicity.
Earlier this month, national committees began notifying athletes to leave personal cell phones at home. They suggested burner phones instead to reduce risks from a mandatory Chinese phone app for Olympic participants, deemed to be easily bypassed to hack user data and other encrypted materials. It appears that Beijing aims to comprehensively monitor all phone, internet, and social media services across Olympic venues. This combination of access limitations, communications security risks, and movement restrictions means that the Chinese commitment to national sovereignty as a dominant ideology will be on full display during these Games.
In total, China’s political approach to the upcoming Winter Olympics contrasts starkly with the Nazi approach in summer 1936 – and despite the structural similarities in the geopolitical environment. Nazi Germany sought and attained enhanced international standing and secured influence by attraction, at least for a time. China’s leaders now signal they will advance Chinese global influence by showcasing organizational effectiveness and efficiency while coercing obedience rather than attracting admiration. We should not expect that Beijing will shift course during the conduct or aftermath of the event. For better or worse, there is little prospect for any “Olympic Pause” in rising Sino-American Great Power Competitive tensions from these Beijing Winter Olympics.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.