On Friday, the country where the coronavirus outbreak broke out two years ago began a lockdown Winter Olympics, proudly showing its strength on the grandest of stages even as some Western governments imposed a diplomatic boycott over China’s treatment of millions of its own citizens.
The opening ceremony began shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping and President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach arrived at the same lattice-encased National Stadium that held the 2008 Olympics’ initial event.
Beijing became the first city to hold both winter and summer Games, with the lights lowering and a countdown in fireworks. While some international leaders stayed away from the second epidemic Olympics in six months, the opening ceremony drew a large number of other world leaders. The most prominent was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met secretly with Xi earlier in the day as a hazardous stalemate erupted at Russia’s Ukrainian border.
The Olympics — particularly the opening ceremony — are always a display of the host nation’s culture, an opportunity to establish its place in the world, and show off its best side. China, in particular, has been preoccupied with this issue for decades. The gap between performance and reality will be more noticeable at this year’s Beijing Olympics.
Fourteen years ago, the opening ceremony in Beijing, which featured gigantic pyrotechnic displays and thousands of card-flipping artists, set a new benchmark for extravagance that no other host city has equaled since. It was an appropriate start to what has been dubbed China’s “coming out.”
China has come, no matter how you look at it, but the expectation for a more open country that followed the inaugural Games has dissipated.
These Olympics are an affirmation of Beijing’s standing as a global actor and force. However, they have become a proof of China’s more authoritarian turn for many outside China, notably in the West.
The opening ceremony on Friday was conducted at the same stadium — known as the Bird’s Nest — that hosted the 2008 iteration, as if to emphasize the transition. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident artist, advised on its construction during the time. He is currently one of the most well-known dissidents in the country and lives in exile.
Chinese authorities are cracking down on pro-democracy agitation, tightening control over Hong Kong, becoming more combative with Taiwan, and interning Muslim Uyghurs in the far west, a crackdown that the US government and others have labeled genocide.
The epidemic has an impact on this year’s Games, just as it did in Tokyo last year. Nearly 6 million people have perished and hundreds of millions more have been afflicted since the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in China’s Hubei province more than two years ago.
The host country has some of the lowest rates of virus-related mortality and sickness, thanks in part to government-imposed stringent lockdowns aimed at promptly stamping out any epidemics. Anyone arriving to compete in or attend the Winter Games was welcomed by such precautions right away.
China’s repression of dissent was also on show in the run-up to the Olympics in the scandal involving Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. After alleging a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault, she vanished from public light last year. Her complaint was promptly removed off the internet, and further discussion of it is tightly restricted.
China put on a performance under the shadow of those political difficulties. The artists turned to face Xi and bowed repeatedly as he took his seat. They hoisted and waved their pom poms toward their president, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, with a synchronized cheer. The arrival of the celebrations was signaled by a bombardment of pyrotechnics, including those that spelt out “Spring.”
A line of individuals dressed in costumes representing China’s many nationalities carried the national flag to the pole, where it was raised — a display of togetherness that the country frequently puts on to demonstrate that its diverse ethnic groups live in peace and prosperity.
Politics infiltrated the proceedings, however subtly. The crowd erupted in applause as the athletes from Taiwan — the island democracy that China claims as its own — marched across the arena, as did the Russian competitors. As they marched, an overcoated Putin rose and waved to the delegation, nodding crisply.
After officials decided to allow a limited number of people to attend activities, the stadium was moderately packed — albeit far from full.
As with each Olympics, after the cauldron is lit, the focus will turn Saturday — at least in part — away from the geopolitical problems of the day and toward the athletes themselves.
All eyes are now on Alpine skiing sensation Mikaela Shiffrin, who has previously won three Olympic gold, to see if she can live up to her lofty expectations. How snowboard phenom Shaun White will end his Olympic career — and if Chloe Kim, the sport’s new standard-bearer, can dazzle us once again. And whether Russia’s female figure skaters will sweep the medals.
Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old American-born freestyle skier who has opted to compete for her mother’s native nation and might win three gold medals, is China’s dream.
The restrictions established by Chinese officials as they compete are a sharp contrast to the party atmosphere of the 2008 Olympics. Hazmat gear, masks, and goggles were used by certain flight attendants, immigration officers, and hotel workers. All guests are subjected to daily testing, with those who test positive subjected to extended quarantines.
Even then, there is no way to go from the Olympic venues into the city itself through the ever-present chain-link fences — which are plastered in happy slogans of a “shared future together” — which is another difference from the 2008 Games.
In the years afterwards, China has changed as well. Then, by hosting the Games, it was a burgeoning global economic power making its largest jump yet onto the world arena. These are now hosted by a developing superpower. Xi, who oversaw the Beijing Olympics in 2008, now oversees the whole country and has fostered a personality-driven adoration campaign.
The organizers’ and Western governments’ hopes that hosting the Olympics would put pressure on the governing Communist Party to improve its “problematic human rights record” and become a more responsible world citizen are long gone.
Three decades after the Chinese government crushed massive democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese citizens, the government interned an estimated 1 million members of minority groups, mostly Muslim Uyghurs from the country’s far western Xinjiang region. Human rights organizations have used the term “Genocide Games” to describe the scenario.
The camps, China claims, were “vocational training and education institutes” that closed as part of an anti-terror operation. It rejects any abuses of human rights.
Dignitaries from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, among others, imposed a diplomatic boycott on the Games, refusing to stand with Chinese leaders while letting their athletes to compete.
Outside the Olympic “bubble,” which divides ordinary Beijingers from Olympians and their entourages, others expressed excitement and pride at the world’s arrival. Zhang Wenquan, an Olympic memorabilia collector, expressed his excitement on Friday, but it was tempered by the illness, which has changed so much for so many people.
“I believe the fireworks impact will be considerably better than it was in 2008,” he said. “I was planning on going to the venue to witness it….” However, due to the outbreak, there may be no hope.”