Beijing puts Chinese tech on display at Winter Olympics

Business & Technology

From smart beds to catering robots, China has gone all out to show the world how far Chinese technology has progressed since the last Olympics in Beijing.

a robot with smiling face at beijing olympic sports venue
A smiley-face robot tasked with admonishing unmasked visitors on Beijing Winter Olympics sporting grounds. Screenshot of Dayoo video.

The Beijing Olympics in 2008 opened with a gaudy celebration of Chinese culture directed by the noted filmmaker Zhāng Yìmóu 张艺谋. Nearly a decade and a half later, China has selected tech as its main attraction. From smart beds to catering robots, Beijing has put many of its darling technologies on display at the Winter Olympics.

  • From kitchen to table, visitors to the Olympic Village are served entirely by catering robots, which flip burgers, drop food right onto athletes’ tables, and even do deliveries.
  • Beijing is also deploying technology for health tracking and surveillance. A legion of robots with smiley faces will admonish mask-neglecting visitors on the sporting grounds.
  • China has also rolled out the digital yuan to foreign audiences for the first time at the Games, encouraging athletes and spectators to download an Android or iOS app.

The context: The Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee has called this year’s Games the “Science and Technology Winter Olympics” 科技冬奥. In November, one of the directors of the Ministry of Science and Technology called the Games’ technological feats “deliberate, successful, and much anticipated.”

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  • Athletes’ apartments are fitted with smart beds that can monitor breathing and heart rate. The mattresses can register “body signatures” and send changes in vitals to athletes’ coaches.
  • 5G connection is available throughout the entire venue, with total access to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube that are usually blocked in China. (However, the online activity inside the bubble will likely be surveilled.)
  • Energy at the event is also green. Wind and solar energy will be imported from the Zhangbei area north of Beijing in Hubei Province. Zhangjiakou, where the games are held, has deployed 80 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and 700 hydrogen fuel cell buses.

The takeaway: China’s propaganda apparatus has been in full swing, highlighting all the gadgetry of this year’s Games to promote China as a modern, technological superpower.

But across China, the fleet of apps, 5G, and AI tools are being used as much for surveillance as for assistance for passersby. Beyond the walls of the Olympic village, citizens are still barred from visiting the world’s most popular websites; further out in China’s borderlands, forced labor and the internment of Uyghurs have led the U.S. and several others into a “diplomatic boycott” of the Games. So long as China remains obdurate to international concerns over human rights, can its exhibitions of modernity successfully resonate with their intended audience?