Worlds Converge at Chongli, China's Winter Olympics Hub
I recently made a trip to Chongli, which will host most of the skiing events at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympiad. Since Beijing won the games in 2015, this remote corner of Hebei Province has been developed into a winter sports hub. Quiet rural villages have been replaced by the hustle and bustle of brand new, international-style ski parks, such as Thaiwoo (太舞), a compact modern resort designed by Canadian firm EcoSign.
Apart from its small but impressive portfolio of artificially groomed ski runs, Thaiwoo has a clear focus on hospitality which sets it apart from Chongli’s half dozen other ski resorts. The heart of the resort is an alpine village-aesthetic commercial space housing numerous international brands from Westin and Hyatt, to KFC, Starbucks, Patagonia and Burton.
While my short stay at Thaiwoo was positive overall, it was clear upon checking into one of the resort’s international (and overpriced) hotels that some things were amiss. Rather than a smooth, welcoming check-inexperience, the lobby was a scene of frantic disorder as an understaffed reception struggled to deal with a sudden influx of Christmas holidaymakers.
After eventually getting to my floor, I was surprised to be greeted by the stench of second-hand smoke and noise from adjacent rooms. Sadly, this proved not to be an isolated issue. The presence of smoke emanating from other rooms quickly became apparent, not to mention the lingering aroma of stale tobacco in the bed sheets and bathrobes!
While smoky hotel rooms are not unusual in China, they have become much less common in recent years, especially in major cities like Beijing, where indoor smoking bans have been enforced. And while Chongli is not technically in Beijing but in a rural corner of Hebei, it struck me as odd that there should be such a pungent aroma in an international hotel mostly frequented by winter sports enthusiasts. This didn’t seem to fit the profile of those guests, whom I doubted would be smoking at a rate that produced such a noticeable stench!
After complaining to the hotel staff, they quickly and helpfully provided a different room and robes. Their reaction also revealed that the complaint was not an unusual one, and explained whence the mysterious smoke had originated. Apparently, it was due to the presence of local officials who had taken over some of the hotel’s rooms to use as their on-site workspaces for the upcoming Olympics. Combined with the seasonal influx of normal guests, the hotel’s heavy occupancy meant there were no spare, smoke-free duvets that day!
According to one hotel staffer, the officials are county and municipal government employees from the surrounding area. They have been using rooms in all of the local hotels to hold meetings, sometimes cramming up to 30 people into one room of around 30 square metres. In some cases, the rooms are used simply for taking afternoon naps and breaks from the cold weather outdoors. The staffer said that the local mayor was visiting the next day, and that a suite had been prepared for Xi Jinping during a previous visit to the Chongli area, though he didn’t end up making use of it. Another Thaiwoo employee said that, during Xi's visit, all of the ski instructors had to pretend to be tourists.
As I wandered around my hotel over the following days, the presence of the local cadres was conspicuous. Some of the guest rooms occupied by the local government bore placards with the names of ad hoc entities called “service assurance command posts” (保障服务指挥部), their doors left permanently ajar, presumably to allow for easy ventilation of their chain-smoking-induced fumes.
At the buffet breakfast, cadres wearing black jackets and white shirts stuck out like a sore thumb, cautiously looking over their shoulders at the regular hotel guests, who were mostly Western expat families on Christmas vacation from the capital. This struck me as a peculiar meeting of disparate Chinese and Western worlds. Indeed, I noticed a very large contingent of fellow expat skiers at Thaiwoo when I was there, which can partly be explained by the timing of the Christmas holidays, but also the fact that snow sports are typically the domain of a white, Western and affluent demographic.
While skiing and snowboarding have become extremely popular in China – and there were still many locals on the slopes during my trip – the numbers have been somewhat curtailed this season. Employees of government entities and state-owned companies as well as children at Chinese schools have generally been prohibited from leaving their cities in the name of epidemic prevention. For everyone else, including employees of foreign companies and international schoolchildren, internal travel has been easier, though now requires a negative COVID test to enter Chongli and many other domestic holiday destinations.
From early January until late March, the slopes of Chongli will be completely emptied of both foreign and Chinese holidaymakers, as the area closes to the public for the Olympics. For the hotels, there is no choice but to comply with the directives, repurposing their guestrooms to accommodate officials, journalists and other games participants. Visitors from other regions will have to undergo a total of 28 days in quarantine after arriving and before leaving.
While the bill for this hotel usage will presumably be picked up by the state, the amount is unknown, and the revenue for Thaiwoo’s hotels will likely be a lot less than is typically made from ski tourists. Other beneficiaries of Chongli’s emerging alpine economy will also be adversely affected, including the retailers and instructors who will suddenly have no work for the remainder of this year’s ski season. For an event of such national pride and political significance, individual interests become, at least for now, a secondary concern.
Again, I see this as exemplifying how very different worlds and interests have converged and to some extent collided at Chongli, as well as in the dichotomies of the Beijing 2022 games more broadly: An Eastern setting hosts the major event of a predominantly Western sporting practice; public interests contend with private concerns; and national political factors rub up against individual commercial needs.
Above all, next month's games will represent a meeting of the dual developing and developed economic worlds that co-exist within today’s China. If the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were a symbol China’s ascension in the modern, globalised world, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympiad symbolise China’s transformation into a developed, rich economy, albeit one that is still extremely unbalanced.
Snow sports – perceived as an elitist activity and one of the easiest ways to voluntarily burn a big hole in your wallet – are now being embraced by a country that is still nominally socialist and governed by a party that claims to aspire to communism. The majority of China’s population today will still not contemplate paying the sums of money required to hit the slopes of Chongli.
What would Mao make of all this? The highly cost-intensive and decadent business of running ski resorts would never have taken off under his planned economic regime. And in a dry, remote area like Chongli, the costs incurred to create artificial snow-covered slopes are amplified even more.
Indeed, the ski resorts of Chongli – now being occupied by the state for an event of enormous national significance – were basically all developed with the private capital of entrepreneurs. Wanlong, established in 2002, has grown into one of China's largest and best resorts for advanced skiing and snowboarding, initially using the profits of a local bakery chain, Holliland. Nearby there is Yunding, marketed as the Secret Garden resort, which was developed by Malaysian group Genting with capital from Hong Kong-based VXL. It will host the snowboard and freestyle skiing events at Beijing 2022. Meanwhile, Thaiwoo and other resorts at Chongli have mostly been built by local real estate developers.
There is an irony that these fruits of private capitalist endeavour will now provide the setting for what will essentially serve as huge global and domestic PR splash for a nominally communist Chinese government! But the Beijing 2022 Olympics will soon come and go, and the focus for Chongli over subsequent seasons will return to developing its burgeoning ski tourism market. There is also talk of Chongli becoming a conference destination akin to Davos, another symbol of capitalism that jars with the dusty terrain of this rural corner of northern China.
In future, it may even be that this area 200 kilometres from downtown Beijing will be incorporated into the capital as a sort of exclave, if the Thaiwoo chairlift hearsay is anything to go by. Apparently, the local government is resisting the move, since Chongli has boosted the somewhat dreary economic fortunes of its parent city, Zhangjiakou. But the “Beijing” association brought by the Olympics, as well as the area’s reliance on Beijing consumers, and the new high-speed rail link, may somehow legitimise this area's pseudo-colonisation by the Chinese capital. And so Chongli's position at the intersection of disparate worlds and interests looks set to continue.