Commentary |
14 January 2022

Winter Games harden China’s global freeze

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games were China’s coming out party as a global power. The 2022 Games tell a very different story. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Natasha Kassam
Natasha Kassam

“We will spare no effort to present a great Games to the world,” pronounced China’s leader, Xi Jinping, on New Year’s Eve. “The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready.”

When Xi declares something will be a success in China, it’s safe to assume it will happen.

But what does success look like for the Beijing Games? This is an increasingly fraught question.

Two years into the pandemic, Beijing may have hoped for a COVID-19-free, perfectly executed and politically untroubled sporting showcase. Tokyo 2020 was the model. Few spectators, even fewer controversies.

But with just weeks until the torch is lit, the challenges are only mounting.

The goal of a COVID-19-free Olympics was well within reach. China has one of the world’s lowest rates of infection and death per capita, and is one of few countries that maintains an elimination strategy in the pandemic.

But the omicron variant coupled with the Olympics presents a new challenge. Strict borders and massive lockdowns have been crucial to China’s pandemic success. Now it is struggling to hold the line.

Diplomatic boycott

At the same time, international scrutiny has only grown. The voices now demanding action over the human rights crisis in Xinjiang are anything but quiet. China has allegedly detained more than 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and engaged in forced labor and forced sterilisation.

These atrocities, coupled with the steady death spiral of Hong Kong’s freedoms, have prompted at least 10 countries to announce that they will not send diplomatic representation to the Olympics.

The contrast to 2008, when China last hosted the Olympics, could not be more stark.

In 2008, the Olympics was like China’s coming out party. Many of the world’s developed economies were embroiled in the global financial crisis. China was cementing itself as the economic partner of choice throughout the world.

China boasted at the time that it would host more than 100 foreign dignitaries – an Olympic record – including US President George W. Bush. Calls to boycott the Games over China’s crackdown in Tibet were drowned out by the gold-tinted lure of China’s market.

The theme song for the 2008 Olympics was Beijing Welcomes You. In 2022, China’s borders remain closed because of the pandemic. Veteran Olympians are receiving letters withdrawing their invitations to the Opening Ceremony.

The rift between China and many developed countries is only widening. As Australians know well, Beijing has started decoupling from the United States and its friends. This is to insulate its economy from shocks and its system from criticism.

Discussion of the Olympic boycotts has been censored on the Chinese internet, and barely covered in state-controlled media. If needed, the party-state can use the boycotts to feed into the narrative of the hypocritical West that is always trying to prevent China’s rise.

For many citizens, China has finally returned to its rightful role as a global superpower. Hosting the Olympics is another point on that scorecard.

At the same time, opinion in developed countries has turned sharply against China, with increasing concern about its human rights abuses, military expansion and economic coercion.

Sport and politics entwined

The organisations and companies that seek to straddle this growing divide find themselves in an even more uncomfortable and fraught position as the Olympics approach.

Take the International Olympic Committee, for example. IOC president Thomas Bach wrote in 2021 that “the Olympic Games are not about politics”. Months later, he contributed to the efforts of the Chinese party-state to muzzle queries about the wellbeing of Chinese tennis player and Olympian Peng Shuai. She has been silenced after posting online allegations of sexual assault by one of China’s top leaders.

The idea that sports can be split from politics has always been wishful thinking. The heady mix of nationalism, competition and profile at the Olympics ensures that protests, activism and boycotts find their way to the podium.

This is even true for Chinese athletes – two Chinese gold medallists wore Mao Zedong badges on the Tokyo podium, earning a warning from the IOC.

The Olympics’ corporate sponsors are also struggling to navigate the growing divide. They should not choose profit if it comes with complicity in a genocide in Xinjiang. But no doubt many will weigh up the competing risks of a backlash at home for taking part against being shut out of China’s lucrative consumer market for pulling out of the Olympics.

Brands have been punished for less: China’s Yang Qian won the first gold medal in Tokyo, but was attacked by netizens for posting a photograph wearing Nike shoes. A campaign to boycott Nike in China has been under way since it pledged to stop using Xinjiang cotton over forced labor concerns.

Foreign journalists will also have to decide whether to cross the divide and enter the Olympic bubble in Beijing. Doing so required installing a Chinese government application on your phone that monitors your health for COVID-19 reasons. Journalists in China – foreign and local – know that their health is not all that party-state is monitoring.

They also know that many journalists, including Australian Cheng Lei, have disappeared into the country’s opaque legal system.

The safety of the athletes is yet another question. After two Canadians spent 1000 days in detention in China as apparent hostages to political tensions, Canadian politicians have questioned whether Canadian athletes should travel to Beijing.

It seems unlikely Beijing would risk the prestige of the Olympics by taking more hostages. But it is a sign of how little faith many hold in China’s leaders that the question even needs to be asked.