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As Olympics begin, Beijing projects ‘shared future’ of undisputed Chinese power

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/4/2022 Christian Shepherd
China's delegation of athletes march during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images) © Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images China's delegation of athletes march during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images)

BEIJING — From dancers waving giant green glow sticks like freshly sprouting grass to six ice hockey players covered in psychedelic colors slapping pucks toward the Olympic rings, the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games were meant to represent unity and a new beginning.

On a freezing Friday evening, 45,000 spectators piled on layers to half-fill Beijing’s National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest” for its outer casing of crisscrossed metal slats, on the day that marks the start of spring in the traditional lunisolar calendar.

Highlights from the Opening Ceremonies

But China’s motto of coming “together for a shared future” during the hardships of the pandemic — an echo of President Xi Jinping’s political philosophy of building a “community with a shared future for mankind” — has been countered by U.S.-led diplomatic boycotts that seek to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable for human rights abuses, military aggression and ascendant nationalism during Xi’s rule.

And the coronavirus-constraining “closed loop” of designated buses and hotels has made it impossible for most Beijing residents to take part in the events. As of Friday, 308 people in the bubble had tested positive for the virus, mostly soon after arrival. But even those low numbers are a concern for China, which is determined to keep cases as close to zero as possible.

“This time around, everything is more toned-down, and the excitement is largely gone, partly because of the pandemic,” said Wang Yajing, a 34-year-old independent filmmaker in Beijing who volunteered at the triathlon venue during the 2008 Games here but is not participating this year.

She remembers that summer fondly as a time when enthusiasm animated the city.

“Back then, Beijing opened more subway lines, reduced air pollution to create ‘Olympic blue’ [skies] and encouraged people to learn English and know more about the world,” Wang said. “It was the excitement of seeing and being seen.”

This time, international attention on Beijing is far more fraught. On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cautioned athletes against angering “ruthless” Chinese authorities with political protests and accused the International Olympic Committee of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. India joined the diplomatic boycott over China’s decision to appoint as torchbearer a regimental commander involved in a deadly border brawl in 2020.

Xi’s Games: Beijing Winter Olympics test China’s supreme leader

In an interview, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing, said it was a “shame” that President Biden did not attend.

“Boycotting the Winter Games is merely an excuse for the U.S. to hide its embarrassment after realizing that its engagement policy has failed, that it couldn’t convert China into a capitalist democracy and that the increasingly confident Chinese are beginning to dream a China Dream,” Wang said.

In the eyes of Western governments and human rights activists, though, China created the atmosphere of mistrust. Under the rule of Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, security forces have detained at least a million Uyghurs and other Muslim people in Xinjiang while Chinese diplomats adopted aggressive tactics in response to international criticism.

In a symbolic rebuff of that concern, an ethnic Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang jointly lit the cauldron with first-time Olympian Zhou Jiawen.

With Xi’s legacy intimately tied to the Olympics, there are few signs that the event will do anything but strengthen his influence ahead of an expected and precedent-breaking third term in late 2022. Hours before the ceremony, Xi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a display of solidarity as concern grows over the Kremlin’s military buildup around Ukraine.

“What Xi has riding on the Games is the political capability of pulling off the event without compromising an inch ideologically,” said Rui Zhong, a program associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.

Under Xi, dramatic advances in China’s wealth and military strength have come alongside unrelenting political campaigns that snared political rivals, outspoken entrepreneurs and misbehaving celebrities — including many stars featured in 2008 Olympics celebrations.

Many of the stars of the 2008 Beijing Opening Ceremonies have now fallen out of favor with the government

By delivering dramatic renditions of official propaganda, well-known Chinese director Zhang Yimou, mastermind of both the 2008 and 2022 Opening Ceremonies, has remained on the party’s good side, despite occasional movies exploring dark periods of China’s recent history. In a documentary about preparations, the 71-year-old was shown working late into the night, pouring packets of sugar into his mouth to keep energized.

In 2008, the four-hour routine cost $300 million — the most expensive Opening Ceremonies ever — and featured 15,000 performers. A third of those were synchronized dancers to signify the government’s heavily contested claims of being the stewards of 5,000 years of continuous Chinese civilization. This year’s techno-utopian celebration of youth, featuring mostly child performers, reflected a shift from talking about the past to focusing on the future, Zhang told Chinese media.

The Olympic torch relay similarly featured figures from Xi’s vision for a powerful, stable and technologically advanced China alongside established favorites such as Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming and film star Jackie Chan.

As Putin heads to Beijing, Russia and China’s stronger ties are a headache for the U.S.

Aside from Cmdr. Qi Fabao of the border clash fame, torchbearers included an ethnic Tajik border guard from remote Tashkurgan in Xinjiang, a Uyghur village chief who promoted Mandarin Chinese and two submersible robots passing the flaming baton underwater.


In a nod to the Olympics truce, nationalist imagery has been spun by party propagandists as an appeal to international unity. The decision to include Qi — who told Indian troops they would “bear all consequences” during the Himalayan skirmish — was, in fact, a “call for world peace,” according to Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of state-run tabloid the Global Times.

In a news conference Thursday, IOC President Thomas Bach defended the Olympics’ political neutrality when peppered with questions about Russian threats to Ukraine, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the safety of athletes who may wish to express political opinions while in Beijing.

Still, China itself has used the Olympics to promote its political vision. Alongside skiing pandas and dancing children, Xi’s less cuddly propaganda themes fill local media: cultural self-confidence, technological self-reliance and white-knuckled determination to win China’s many territorial disputes.

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China also has used the opportunity to underscore its claims of ownership over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy of 23.5 million that has never been under Communist Party rule. At a time when the Chinese military has escalated drills near the island in protests at the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party, the decision by opposition Kuomintang politician Hung Hsiu-chu to attend Friday’s performance was seized on by Chinese state media.

While Bach said Thursday the takeaway of these Olympics should be China’s arrival as a winter sports country, the message delivered by state media is Xi’s determination to bring about a rapid “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation as a technical, military or sporting power.

Or, as state-run Xinhua News Agency wrote, “Ensuring the Beijing Winter Olympics were held on schedule demonstrates the significant advantages of Socialism with Chinese characteristics and is a bold declaration that no force can stop the Chinese people from realizing their dreams.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.


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