Today marks the first day of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which becomes the first city to enjoy the privilege of hosting both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The selection of host cities for the Olympic Games and other major international sporting competitions has become a contentious topic in recent years, with criticism leveled at the decision to award hosting rights to nations with authoritarian regimes or track records of human rights abuses. Indeed, since the 1936 Berlin Games the story of the Olympics has been inseparable from its use as a tool for winning legitimacy by autocrats and authoritarians. However, one particular edition of the Games stands as an exception to this tarnished history. The 1988 Seoul Games are widely regarded as having played a key role in the democratization of South Korea, in which the authoritarian military regime was peacefully displaced by a multi-party, electoral democracy. 
Yet it is unlikely we will see a repeat of this effect any time soon, and especially not in China. To understand why, we must answer the question of why autocrats might choose to host the games in the first place. For authoritarians, the decision to host the Olympic Games represents a trade off between the prospects of international recognition and internal dissent. The capitulation of South Korea’s military regime was due to its miscalculation in this trade off. In contrast, the Chinese government’s unique technological capabilities, economic might, and domestic popularity allows it to host the games without confronting this choice.
The decision to grant China the right to host the games might be chalked up to the IOC’s corruption at first glance, but in truth the IOC’s hands were tied because more favorable cities in European democracies rescinded their bids, leaving Beijing and Alamaty, Kazakhstan as the only candidates. This is not an outlying result, and instead reflects a growing rift between the way democracies and autocracies view the Olympics. In developed democracies, hosting the Olympics has become unpopular. Major international sporting competitions are expensive, and leave lasting scars on the cities that host them. As a result, hosting the games is deeply unwise in countries whose politicians must directly answer to their constituents.
By contrast, autocrats who don’t have to worry about voters’ responses to the massive costs view the Games as a chance to win something that money can’t buy: prestige. In the case of South Korea, President Chun Doo-hwan and other members of the regime hoped that the Olympics would provide legitimacy at home and announce to the world Korea’s economic arrival.  The Olympics is at its core a giant advertisement, a chance to show the world a different side of your country. Therefore, the benefit to countries that already have esteemed reputations isn’t as great as the benefit to countries which have something to prove.
The political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argues that the stability of political systems depends on their perceived legitimacy.  Lipset was primarily concerned with internal legitimacy, which China does not lack.  However, the successful hosting of the Olympic games without an outbreak could perhaps prove the effectiveness of the Chinese zero-COVID strategy and further solidify the CCP’s legitimacy and effectiveness on home soil. And support from major non-governmental institutions such as the IOC can be an effective stepping stone to garnering the approval of peer nations.
In addition, the opportunity to burnish the national identity is desirable to Xi Jinping given that one of his greatest concerns is the threat of independence or secession movements in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Short of war, international sporting competitions are one of the best ways to stoke the flames of nationalism. In China, the awarding of the 2008 Games to Beijing was hailed as a milestone in the goal of national revival.  It is easier for politicians to paint their critics as treasonous naysayers when such criticisms are overshadowed by an atmosphere of national pride. Even in liberal democracies, the prevailing sentiment is often: “Let’s save the arguments for after the neighbors leave.”
Of course, hosting the Olympics poses risks for countries with something to hide. Ultimately, it was the presence of foreign press, and the attention it brought to the situation in South Korea, as well as the sympathy and legitimacy it granted opposition leaders and protestors, that forced the military regime to make political concessions.  However, despite the massive press coverage that will be present in Beijing, it is unlikely that it will be enough to force political change in the country.
To begin with, the norm of not politicizing the Olympics may cause potential critics to hesitate. The question governments, athletes, and people face when deciding whether or not to break Rule 50 is the question of how to respond when norms are being abused but not broken, such as when regimes use the games to burnish their image unmolested. This is a classic dilemma that democracies face in their battle against authoritarianism, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt observe in their book How Democracies Die, since authoritarians are as willing to bend or break norms as democracies are hesitant to.  China will bank on this unwillingness to break norms to limit discussion about its human rights abuses, but it is far from reliant on it.
Instead, China will utilize other factors to its advantage. Lipset points to isolation as one of the key factors in cultivating authoritarianism, by mitigating the influence of countervailing voices.  The benefit of these Olympics to Beijing is that unlike in Seoul, the ruling regime will not face the dilemma of having to choose between showing off to the world and isolating its citizens from external rhetoric. The efficacy of China’s domestic censorship coupled with a natural excuse to admit only CCP-vetted spectators makes both possible simultaneously.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the silencing of influential cultural figures and institutions is essential to the solidification of authoritarian control.  China is far from a democracy, but its need to silence potential critics and challengers is the same, and its capacity to do so exceeds every other nation’s. The threat of denied access to the lucrative Chinese market, along with the prospect of facing Chinese consumers’ own wrath, allows it to influence the behavior of not only its own citizens and businesses, but those of other countries as well, from global stars like John Cena and Lebron James to powerhouses like Intel and H&M.
A rare holdout to China’s power was the WTA, which chose to suspend its tournaments in China after the disappearance of Peng Shuai shortly after she accused a top member of the Inner Party of sexual abuse. Yet the WTA has proven to be an exception rather than the rule, and other sporting organizations such as the NBA and the ATP have been quick to fall in line. The silencing of Peng Shuai lacked subtlety and sophistication, but perhaps that is the point. Beijing chose to make an example of her to demonstrate to both its citizens and the rest of the world that it is willing to go after anyone, no matter how famous they may be. The fact that China is willing to extinguish its firewall (if at least only for the Olympic athletes) is proof that they have already decided that the benefits of allowing athletes to share their experience in Beijing with the world is worth the risk of a political outburst.
However, even if athletes and the media manage to draw attention to the wrongdoings of the Chinese government, the simple truth is that to the people of China, it probably won’t matter. The answer why reflect’s Lipset’s second criteria for political stability: even more than legitimacy, the ultimate guarantor of safety for a government is effectiveness.  Even in the international community, the Chinese government is seen as effective, if ruthless. The very reason why China was awarded the bid to host the Olympics was because despite lacking natural snow, it was seen as the safe choice compared to Almaty. As Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC said, “We know China will deliver on its promises.”
Lipset argued that increasing industrialization, urbanization, and literacy were at least correlated with, if not drivers for democracy.  However, China’s rapid ascension to the top of the economic pyramid has shown its people that liberal democracy is not essential in order to guarantee economic development. Chinese citizens aren’t concerned about what form of government rules over them; they’re concern is whether or not it puts food on their table. According to Lipset, increased wealth should result in the development of democracy because a large middle class rewards moderate parties and penalizes radicals.  However, while it is clear to see the application in democracies, the same logic applies to the political system of China, in which the growth of the middle class has lessened calls for drastic political change.
The simple truth is that China doesn’t need these games as much as they did in 2008. Unlike the 2008 Olympics, which were meant to prove to the West that China had arrived on the world stage as an economic superpower, the 2022 Olympics are instead a victory lap directed inwards at the people of China itself. Perhaps the greatest proof of this is in the change in China’s tone between the 2008 Olympics and the 2022 Olympics. In 2008, Chinese Olympic officials took a propitiatory attitude towards the human rights question, making generous if vague promises to bring about a more just, harmonious, and democratic society.  By contrast, China’s attitude towards human rights in 2022 is indifferent and perhaps even imperious. Where the 2008 Games were about what the world thought of China, the 2022 Games are about what China thinks of the world. Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requirements of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review, 1959.  Dahl, Robert. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. 1971. Chapter 1.  Levitsky, Steven, and Ziblatt, Daniel. How Democracies Die. Crown Books, 2018.  Black, David R., and Bezanson, Shona. “The Olympic Games, Human Rights and Democratisation: Lessons from Seoul and Implications for Beijing.” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 7 (2004): pp. 1245–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993808.  Wei, Fan and Hong, Fan and Lu, Zhouxiang. “Why Did China Bid Twice for the Olympic Games? Sport, Nationalism and International Politics”. Journal of Olympic History 20, no. 2 (2012). pp. 31-37. https://mural.maynoothuniversity.ie/13024/