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Why On Earth Did The International Olympic Committee Choose Beijing For The Winter Olympics?

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NG HANĀ GUAN
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NG HANĀ GUAN

With its temperate climate, questionable human rights and environmental records, and restrictive media environment, Beijing is a surprising choice to host a major global event like the Winter Olympics.

Regardless, the International Olympic Committee announced on Friday that it had selected the city of over 21.5 million people to host the 2022 Games. Beijing narrowly won out over Almaty, Kazakhstan — which observers criticized for its own troubling human rights record — making it the first city in Olympic history to host both the Winter and Summer Games.

“It is with an incredible sense of excitement that we express our thanks to the IOC and the wider Olympic movement. Just as with the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, the Olympic family has put its faith in Beijing again to deliver the athlete-centred, sustainable and economical Games we have promised,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a statement following the selection, adding that he was “honoured and humbled by the International Olympic Committee’s decision.”

Now, just as with last year’s Sochi Olympics and the forthcoming Rio Summer Olympics, all eyes will be on Beijing, with press and public attention focusing beyond the slopes and onto a slew of social, political, and environmental issues that call into question the city’s preparedness to host a responsible Olympic Games.

Virtually No Natural Snow

No, really, virtually none. Beijing averages about 0.2 inches of snow in February, when the games will be held, and Zhangjiakou, part of the Hebei Province where snow events will take place, receives only eight inches per year. In context, the West Caucasus Mountains, where the Sochi Olympic events were held in 2014, receives 39 to 157 inches of snow per year (and even then athletes complained of slushy conditions, and significant artificial snowmaking efforts were required) and Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the 2018 Winter Games will be held, also receives substantial snowfall.

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With almost no natural snow, Beijing and Zhangjiakou will be responsible for artificially creating almost all of the snow necessary for the competition, which may be easier said than done despite confident statements from the bid committee, including from spokeswoman Wang Hui who told Southern China Morning Post, “we have the capacity to rely entirely on artificial snow-making facilities and comply with all snow requirements.”

Artificial snow making technology, such as snow cannons, will be responsible for pumping water from nearby rivers and reservoirs, then supercooling it into ejectable ice crystals. However, China is already running relatively thin on water resources, with the north receiving significant support from water-diverting efforts from the damper south.

A Poor Environmental Record

Water isn’t the only environmental challenge China faces. Livescience’s list of issues in the country include air pollution, desertification and deforestation, biodiversity, population growth, and “cancer villages,” where high rates of cancer in certain areas are attributed to pollution and poor public health policy.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China has been criticized for misusing its resources to make ski resorts and Olympic courses in water-stressed environments. Its eco-friendly efforts, titled “Green Olympics,” during the 2008 Summer Olympics seemed to be successful to outsiders, but did little for the country’s population. Many of those efforts proved to be short-term measures, but the government has taken steps since to reduce the country’s coal use and improve air quality in big cities.

A History of Human Rights Abuse And Oppression

China’s human rights record has been colored by restrictive anti-gay and women’s rights policies, a harsh and secretive judicial system, and forced authoritarian control over Tibet.

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According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government qualified homosexuality as as a mental illness until 2001, and few protections exist for the LGBT community. Non-heterosexual marriages are not recognized by the government and little anti-discrimination legislation is in place to protect the rights of gays and other sexual minority communities. Anti-discrimination protections for women are also lax, as are reproductive rights services and protections.

Amnesty International estimates at least 500,000 individuals remain under punitive detention without a forthcoming trial while detention of activists and progressive media representatives continues to rise. China is also known for its excessive use of the death penalty and has been accused of executing more individuals than the rest of the world combined, although the exact death toll is a state secret.

Perhaps the most widely contended human rights issue, China continues to strictly control and systematically oppress Tibet, an autonomous region which was forcefully claimed by China in 1950. The Chinese government has been accused of stifling freedom of expression, religion, assembly, and speech in the region, as well as imposing involuntary rehousing and relocation activities. According to Human Rights Watch, 123 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest of Chinese policies since 2009.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics prompted significant protests from Tibetans worldwide who denounced the IOC for bestowing hosting honors on a country that refuses to recognize the Tibetan identity.

A Risky City For Journalists

As is the case during any international sporting event, news outlets from all over the world will send journalists to cover the Olympics. These reporters often find compelling stories at the intersection of sports and politics, which is where the state gets involved. Press freedom in China has been under attack for years; the International Federation of Journalists found that since 2008, 275 press freedom violations have taken place in Beijing. At 36 violations in 2015 alone, the city is home to the most violations in China.

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Each year, Freedom House scores freedom of the press in different regions. Its scores for China confirm that press freedoms there are some of the worst in the world.

CREDIT: Freedom House
CREDIT: Freedom House

“The already limited space for investigative journalism and politically liberal commentary shrank during 2014, continuing a trend of ideological tightening since Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012,” Freedom House wrote in its report. “For the first time in several years, professional journalists from established news outlets were subjected to long-term detention, sentencing, and imprisonment alongside freelancers, online activists, and ethnic minority reporters.”

A lack of press law protecting reporters and punishing their attackers contributes to China’s shoddy treatment of journalists. Unless something drastic changes by 2022, internet censorship, government control of media, and a poor human rights record set the stage for an oppressive press environment.

Beautification Projects Rely On Forced Evictions

When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, it had a massive redevelopment plan to beautify its “grimy capital.” To carry it out, the country would displace 1.5 million residents on short notice with little to no compensation.

“The Olympic Games have been used as a justification to speed up housing rights violations that were already existing and to weaken people’s ability to fight for their human rights,” Deanna Fowler, senior research officer at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, told Reuters.

The government, however, denied the allegations, saying instead that only about 6,000 families were involved in the redevelopment plan. Some protesters who demanded adequate compensation were threatened, attacked, and detained, according to Human Rights Watch.

The forced evictions continued after 2008, when the financial crisis pushed China’s local governments to sell land to developers. “Despite international scrutiny and censure of such abuses amid preparations for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the pace of forced evictions has only accelerated over the past three years, with millions of people across the country forced from their residences without appropriate legal protection and safeguards,” Amnesty International found in a 2012 report.

Katelyn Harrop and Rupali Srivastava are interns with ThinkProgress.