China and the World, Talking Point

Summer, now winter

Beijing’s Winter Olympics kicks off with political and sporting drama

Beijing Olympics: Eileen Gu

Ailing (or Eileen) Gu reportedly made about $2 million per endorsement deal even before her Olympic glory

George Orwell, the English author, once derided serious sport as “war minus the shooting”. The Olympian ideal is different, contending that sports between nations can play a role in promoting peace. The modern-day Games claim their origin from ancient Greece when warring city-states were said to observe truces for sporting competition, allowing safe travel for athletes and spectators.

Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, returned to the theme in his prepared remarks at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing last Friday night, asking “all political authorities across the world” to “observe your commitment to this Olympic truce” and “give peace a chance”. This was a golden opportunity to “show the world… it is possible to be fierce rivals while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together,” he added.

Was that really the mood in the Chinese capital this week, though? The Winter Olympics comes at a very different time to the Beijing Summer Games back in 2008, which was widely seen as a celebration of China’s emergence onto the global scene. Shorn of most international attendees because of Covid and political strife, this year’s gathering saw one particular guest, in the form of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, loom particularly large, putting pressure on the Games’ non-partisan ideals.

What was the reaction to the opening ceremony?

It was masterminded once again by the well-known film director Zhang Yimou, who created the spectacular scenes at the Summer Olympics fourteen years ago. The two-hour welcome didn’t match its predecessor for scale and drama, partly due to the cold weather but also because of the complexities of arranging it amid the restrictions of the tightly enforced bubble around the Games. Around 3,000 performers still put on a spectacle in showcasing China’s “ordinary humanity”, as Zhang explained it, culminating in an interlocking of the banners of each nation into a single snowflake, which was said to symbolise the shared community of mankind.

“If I am to compare, I think the Opening Ceremony of 2022 is warmer, is more relaxed, is simpler. But it also tells us more about the concept of being together. It has a bigger perspective of the whole world, especially the lighting of the cauldron: that shows a global perspective,” he told reporters.

That spirit of fraternity had shown signs of fraying long before show time, however. The Indians had already withdrawn their envoy from the opening ceremony, furious that Beijing had chosen as one of the Olympic torchbearers a colonel who had led skirmishes with Indian forces in the Himalayas in 2020. And Taiwanese sports officials said they wouldn’t be sending any of their team to the opening ceremony either, although they backed down when the IOC insisted that a delegation had to turn up on opening night.

The tiny group of athletes then walked into the stadium to be announced under the name “Chinese Taipei”, although viewers on China’s state television channel saw them described as “China’s Taipei” – a meaningful distinction that denotes Beijing’s unwavering stance that the island is part of China.

And more drama over the lighting of the Olympic flame in the stadium?

Probably the most contentious part of the evening came during the igniting of a cauldron in the stadium with the Olympic flame. One of the two Chinese athletes given the task was the cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who is Uighur, and campaigners seized on her appearance as a direct rebuke to President Joe Biden and other international leaders, some of whom have categorised China’s treatment of Muslim populations in Xinjiang as the equivalent of genocide.

This selection of a relatively unknown athlete to light the flame couldn’t be a coincidence, it was argued, and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki joined the fray by citing Yilamujiang’s involvement as further justification for why the Americans had refused to send diplomatic representatives to the Olympic gathering.

“We can’t allow this to be a distraction… from the human rights abuses, the genocide that we’re seeing in parts of China,” she claimed.

That was not the view of the IOC, however, which described the cauldron lighting as a “lovely concept”.

“This is an athlete who is competing here. She has every right, wherever she comes from, whatever her background, to compete and to take part in any ceremony,” a spokesman insisted.

In fact, all 56 of China’s ethnic groups were part of the ceremony, featuring in a sequence in which a national flag was passed hand-to-hand before finally being unfurled. Symbolism like this isn’t unusual at major occasions in China, where events such as the gatherings of the National People’s Congress and even the annual TV celebration of the Spring Festival Gala typically feature every ethnic minority group in a nod to national unity.

There was little formal commentary on Yilamujiang’s role in the Chinese press, although the Global Times reported that her background was “worth noting”. Some social media bloggers pointed out that back in 2000, Cathy Freeman also became a symbol for Aboriginal reconciliation in her role as the final torch-bearer to light the Olympic flame at the Sydney Summer Games (many in China still remember Freeman because her great great grandfather was one of the Chinese indentured labourers who moved to Queensland in the 19th century). And more broadly, the Chinese might point out that patriotism has been on plentiful display from previous Olympian hosts, including at Salt Lake City in 2002, when George W Bush saluted as American athletes were joined by an honour guard of police officers and firefighters carrying a tattered American flag from the World Trade Center site. A choir belted out the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they walked by.

Putin and politics

A quick look back at the 2008 Games in Beijing confirms that it wasn’t entirely politics-free either, with the Chinese caught unaware by protests at some of the torch-bearing relays in other countries in the lead up to the event.

A catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 90,000 people in Sichuan shortly before the Games began brought more sympathetic sentiment for the hosts and there was widespread admiration for the dramatic scenes on opening night, which showcased thousands of years of Chinese history.

Even then, there were misgivings about the splendour of the evening, including from The Economist, which reported on the ceremony as “spectacular, but with touches of the authoritarian”, with an “uncomfortable martial tone” and a “nation marching in lockstep”.

In fact, hopes that this year’s Games would skirt political tensions were forlorn, especially once Biden confirmed the American decision to declare a diplomatic boycott late last year.

That said the mood hasn’t been quite as fraught as 1980, when the US and some of its allies boycotted the Moscow Games completely, or 1984, when the Russians returned the favour in Los Angeles. However, many other governments, especially allies of the US, have opted not to send formal representatives to Beijing this time either.

Back in 2008 more than 80 leaders and heads of state turned up to watch the proceedings, including the American president George W Bush who, while talking about “constructive and cooperative” relations with China, spent five days in the Chinese capital and was even later joined by his father. But there was absolutely no prospect of Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping strolling into the stadium together last week. And despite determined efforts in the Chinese media to highlight the guests who did make the trip, there was no hiding the absence of nations that had declined to send official representatives.

Much of the VIP group at the event was made up of neighbours from Central and Southeast Asia, as well as leaders from the Middle East, giving media outlets the chance to paint the guest list as a split between democracies and autocracies. That started to look more dramatic as Putin met Xi shortly before the ceremony in a meeting with a significant political pretext, whatever the wishes of the IOC.

Putin doesn’t have much form for respecting the Olympian ideal after choosing to invade Georgia on the day of the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008. But it was hard to avoid the impression that the Chinese weren’t overly concerned about breaching the ‘Olympic truce’ either, with Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, teeing up the Russian president’s visit by talking about the prospects of a “Winter Olympics Pact”. The joint statement that followed the meeting was also unabashedly political in championing a friendship that had “no limits”. It comes at a time when Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border and, although there was no direct mention of the situation there, there were veiled messages from both men in warnings against NATO expansionism and interference in their internal affairs.

Further complaints that “some actors” unilaterally “resort to force”, as well as a championing of the contribution of Russia and China to safeguarding “the true spirit of democracy” could only be seen as a rebuke to American efforts to build a coalition against the two nations’ respective interests too.

How about the sporting action?

The Games themselves have got off to a steady start, despite the restrictive impact of a “closed-loop management system” which has isolated Olympic attendees from the rest of Beijing.

Everyone inside this bubble is subject to daily testing – almost 63,000 tests were administered on January 30 alone, with thousands of journalists joining the athletes in the restricted area, as well as at least 19,000 volunteers, many of whom will end up staying inside the bubble for more than three months.

Anyone who tests positive for the virus is dispatched immediately to isolation hotels, where they are confined to their rooms. More than 400 people have already been moved into isolation, many of them athletes, and there has been criticism from some of the heads of the national teams that the quarantine rooms are small and unhygienic, with awful food, and too few follow-up tests are available.

The situation even drew rare criticism from the IOC, which described the conditions as “not good enough” and said it would pressure local organisers for improvements.

Despite the constrained circumstances, China was soon celebrating its first gold in speed skating, although more of the media interest has focused on Gu Ailing (or Eileen Gu), an American-born competitor in freestyle skiing, who won her first gold on Tuesday.

At an event already soaked in symbolism, the 18 year-old Gu is the major focal point. Born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and American father, she grew up in the United States and has a place on hold at Stanford University.

Eligible to compete for either country, she chose China when she was 15. Cynics have described the decision as commercially motivated a time when the government has been encouraging a push into winter sports. But Gu has already won honours at a number of freestyle skiing championships and she could win as many as three gold medals in Olympic competition this month (she won her first in the freeski big air with a bravura final run that stunned judges and onlookers this week).

She stands out from the crowd as a trendy competitor in an evolving sport, who strikes a very different pose to most of the stars developed through training programmes overseen by the state. Brands have battled for her endorsement and the fact that she has chosen China over the US plays very well too, with local social media exploding in celebration over her first gold. “I thought the media turning her into a god would give her too much pressure, but she withstood it!” one fan applauded. “She is the pride of Chinese girls!” another wrote.

So far Gu has managed her press conferences adroitly, fielding questions fluently in Mandarin and English and batting away critical remarks from some Western journalists about Sino-US politics and human rights. This has further enthused locals (though WiC suspects she may face similar exchanges when she starts at Stanford and eventually find them wearing).

Meanwhile it was a very different tale for Beverly Zhu, another Californian-born competitor in the Chinese Olympic team, who finished last at a skating event on Sunday. Going by the name of Zhu Yi in China, her stumble on the ice prompted ridicule and the widely viewed hashtag #ZhuYifelldown, before censors stepped in to make the term unsearchable. Zhu then tumbled twice more in another event on Monday. “What everyone said on the internet really affected me,” she told state news agency Xinhua.

Zhu has also given up her American citizenship to compete for China but hasn’t been celebrated in the same way as Gu. Perhaps that’s because her Chinese language skills are a lot less fluent, although her failure to challenge for medals is probably another factor. Netizens have even been questioning why she was chosen for the team over Chinese-born skaters and showed no sympathy when she broke down after her latest fall on the ice. “I hate that she’s crying. Can crying solve anything?” one scoffed.

The real contrast to 2008

As the Games continue there will be more opportunity to compare and contrast with the Olympics of 2008 (China’s capital is the first city to host an Olympics in both the Summer and Winter formats). But perhaps what bears more comparison is the broader context in which this month’s event is taking place. Fourteen years ago China’s hosting of the Games heralded for many overseas observers the hope that the event signalled Beijing’s growing acceptance of the international order – or at least that it was tacking towards more of the norms laid down by governments in North America and Western Europe. That perspective now seems naïve, in part because China’s transformation in economic and technological terms since then has been so profound, with an inevitable impact on how it sees itself, and how others see it, on the global stage.

In 2008 it had only just overtaken Germany as the world’s third-biggest economy and its GDP was a third of the size of the US, for instance. Its economy is now three times as big as back then and many analysts expect it to take number one spot from the Americans within a decade.

The impact of that transformation can also be seen in the differences in pronouncements from the IOC in the lead-up to the 2008 Games, when officials including Jacques Rogge, its then president, argued that hosting the Olympics would contribute to an improvement of human rights in China. Contrast that with the IOC’s determined effort to steer clear of the same debate today. “The Olympics cannot solve problems that generations of politicians have not solved,” noted Thomas Bach, the current IOC president.

Indeed, where 2008 was an opportunity for China to make the case that it belonged as an equal on the global stage, the situation is now rather different. “The message now is China is a strong power. Deal with it,” Xu Guoqi, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, explained to Bloomberg last month.

Zhang Yimou, the creator of the opening ceremony, took a similar view in comments to Xinhua last week. “In 2008, the Olympics was a brilliant stage and chance for our country to show ourselves,” he agreed. “It’s different now. China’s status in the world, the image of the Chinese, and the rise of our national status, everything is totally different now.”

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