I vividly remember Beijing winning the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The bid eventually boiled down to two cities: the heavyweight, Beijing — some 200km away from the closest, famously snowless ski resort in Zhangjiakou city — and the underdog, Almaty, Kazakhstan — a winter sports hotspot at the bottom of the Tian Shan mountains.

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I was in one of Almaty’s main squares on the day the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took the final decision in July 2015, where crowd had gathered to follow the IOC proceedings. Excitement turned into disappointment as Beijing won the bid by just two votes.

This was perhaps not ideal for the then up-and-coming Kazakh city, but China’s capital looked like the safer bet in the eyes of the IOC. They would never imagine that the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics would unfold in such an inconspicuous way.

Despite China’s zero-Covid-19 policy forbidding foreign spectators, and the diplomatic boycott declared by the likes of the US, the UK and India over the country’s human rights record, the event has gone ahead behind closed doors.

But beyond the pandemic and geopolitics, these Games have simply failed to elicit much interest, unlike those 14 years earlier.

In 2008, eyes turned in awe to Beijing’s Summer Olympics as venues like the Bird’s Nest Stadium became instant icons. This time around, awe has given way to disbelief; a disused steel mill that standing as backdrop to the Games’ ski jump ramp. 

If the Bird Nest’s cheering crowd told the story of a country vying to reclaim its global status after more than a century of social and political upheaval, the empty stands at the dystopian Big Air Shougang venue tell the story of a country that fell out of touch with the rest of the world and is turning inward.

The way perceptions of China have evolved between the two Olympic events is telling. Elements of this perception are enshrined in state policy. Facing an increasingly hostile external environment, president Xi Jinping has inaugurated China’s ‘dual-circulation’ policy, which shifts the focus of China’s growth to domestic consumption.

Functional to Mr Xi’s vision is a continuous liberalisation effort aimed at attracting a new cohort of foreign investors in high value-added manufacturing and services willing to serve the domestic market.

China will stay open for business if that business helps protect its own interests

Many are salivating at the idea of serving a fast-growing market of 1.4 billion people; but China’s siren song comes with big strings attached. “China will stay open for business if that business helps protect its own interests,” summed up Michael Schuman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, in January 2021.

Some heavy hitters such as PwC have taken the plunge, but most are walking on eggshells; the data reflect this. Real foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country, both in absolute terms and relative terms as a percentage of global FDI, has been plummeting.

For years, there was a lingering belief that China’s market reforms would gradually open up the country’s one-party system. This did not come to pass; instead, the system is stronger than ever.

Foreign investors have now become pawns in Beijing’s great quest for global grandeur. Whether this is worth the opportunity China presents is up to them to decide.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here