Beijing (CNN)Heading into the Winter Olympics, there was much talk of two host cities -- one inside a tightly-sealed bubble where the Games would be held, and one outside, where daily life would go on as normal.
But the past two weeks have also shown the world two very different Games: For China, Beijing 2022 was a resounding success that exceeded all expectations. To the rest of the world, it remained a deeply polarizing event, that projected not only China's rising power but also its growing assertiveness, ready to defy and challenge its critics.
In its meticulously managed "closed loop," the ubiquitous face masks, endless spraying of disinfectant and rigorous daily testing have paid-off. Infections brought into the country were swiftly identified and contained, allowing the Games to run largely free of Covid even as the Omicron variant raged around the world.
In the medal tables, Team China claimed nine golds and a total of 15 medals, delivering its best ever result at a Winter Olympics -- and ranking above the United States. The stellar performances of its new Olympic stars -- from freeski sensation Eileen Gu to snowboard prodigy Su Yiming -- captivated fans in the stands and across the country, drawing an outpouring of pride.
By Wednesday, nearly 600 million people -- or 40% of the Chinese population -- had tuned in to watch the Games on television in China, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And while US viewing figures have been markedly down compared to previous Olympics, the boost in Chinese audiences will likely make Beijing 2022 among the most watched Winter Games in history.
Even the official mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, a panda wearing an ice shell, turned out to be a domestic success. Having been mostly ignored for more than two years since it was first unveiled, the chubby bear soared in popularity during the Games, routinely trending on Chinese social media. At souvenir stores inside and outside the bubble, people queued for hours -- sometimes in biting cold -- to take home plush toy replicas.
And for the ruling Communist Party and its supreme leader Xi Jinping, it is the domestic audience that matters the most. Xi personally backed Beijing's bid to host these Games, and made a flurry of visits to the ice rinks and snow slopes to inspect preparation work. The success of the Games present Xi with a moment of national unity as he gears up for an unprecedented third term in power this fall.
But for the Chinese government, part of the domestic success also comes from the avoidance of major political scandal or embarrassment. While the doping saga surrounding a teenage Russian figure skater has cast a shadow over the Olympics, it was downplayed inside China. The same was true of criticism of the Games in general, most of which was censored and blocked.
Early in the Games, many athletes from Western countries were stunned by the stringent Covid restrictions they met upon arrival in Beijing. Some were placed in isolation for weeks after testing positive, while others complained about the bland food served in quarantine. But their criticism -- including an emotional plea for help from a Belgian athlete -- went wholly unreported inside China.
Instead, Chinese state media avidly shared social media videos, posts and comments from athletes that portrayed their life inside the Olympic village in a positive light, praising the food, the Covid measures and the friendly volunteers.
And much to the relief of government officials in Beijing, not a single athlete or Olympic attendee attempted to use the event to publicly protest China's human rights record -- a hot-button issue in the lead-up to the Olympics (though some have expressed critical views).
In December, the United States and its allies declared a diplomatic boycott of Games over China's crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang -- which Washington has labeled a genocide. But apart from the notable absence of Western leaders at the opening ceremony, the impact of the boycott was seldom felt on the ground.
"You can't write stories about people who aren't in Beijing -- that's the problem with the diplomatic boycott. There's no story once the Games start," said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and the Olympic Games at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"I've predicted at the beginning that the political issues would fade into the background and the sports would take the headlines, and that would be the memory that would be left, at least for the general audience. I think that has largely happened," added Brownell.
Going on the offensive
But Beijing wasn't just waiting for the political controversies to fade. It has gone on the offensive, using the Games to push its own political message and hit back at criticism -- despite having repeatedly derided Western governments for "politicizing" the Olympics.
As the torch relay got underway right before the Games, state media reported a Chinese soldier who was involved in a deadly border clash with Indian troops was among the chosen few to carry the Olympic flame. The report sparked immediate outrage in India, prompting New Delhi to join the US-led diplomatic boycott.
The next day, in a symbolic end to the highly choreographed opening ceremony, Chinese organizers chose Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a little-known Uyghur cross-country skier, to deliver the flame to the Olympic cauldron. (Her name could also be written as Dilnigar Ilhamjan.) To many outside of China, it was seen as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to confront critics over its treatment of the Uyghurs.
Then there came the high-profile appearance of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian who has been at the center of global concern after she was silenced for accusing a former top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
At these Games, Peng met IOC President Thomas Bach for dinner, gave a sit-down interview to French sport news site L'Equipe -- during which she denied she ever accused anyone of sexual assault or disappeared from the public eye -- and was seen in the stands watching Team China compete in events like curling, figure skating and freestyle skiing.
Her flurry of activities made headlines around the world -- and like her previous public appearances, they failed to quell broader concerns about her freedoms. Inside China, however, none of that was reported by state media or shared on social media, where Peng's name remains censored.
And as the Olympics approached its end, the political messaging got more pugnacious.
At a press conference Thursday, Yan Jiarong, a spokesperson for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympics Games (BOCOG), was asked whether Taiwan's delegation would appear at the closing ceremony Sunday.
Yan, a former Chinese representative to the United Nations, took the opportunity to assert China sovereignty claims over the self-ruling democracy. "What I want to say is that there is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China," she said.
She also jumped in on CNN's question about whether the Olympics uniforms were made by forced labor in Xinjiang, calling accusations of forced labor "a lie made up by forces with ulterior motives."
Yan's comments -- which appeared to be an outright violation of Olympic rules about political neutrality -- prompted a rare rebuke from Bach, the IOC president.
"We were in touch with the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) immediately after this press conference," Bach said, "and both organizations, BOCOG and the IOC, have restated the unequivocal commitment to remain politically neutral as it is required by the Olympic charter."
While the Chinese government may see these combative remarks as a propaganda victory, for many in the international audience, they only serve as a reminder of how politically fraught these Games are, despite the organizational success and sporting achievements.
"The Games as a standalone event have been run very well, and China did well. The organization has been phenomenal," said Mark Dreyer, the founder of China Sports Insider in Beijing.
"But again, it depends on what perspective you're looking at. Are you just looking through that narrow lens? Because if you're looking at China as a whole, the narrative (from outside China) is much more about China using these Games for sportswashing...I don't think it's really going to change people's perspective on China as a country."