In what was supposed to be a sporting event that would unite the world in uncertain times, the Beijing Winter Olympics ended up being a deeply polarising occasion, and a sort of watershed between the world that was and the world that would be, having seemingly long-forgotten the covid pandemic and ensuing emergency.
Leading democracies observed a strict diplomatic boycott of the event, citing China’s human rights abuses. Rattled by this diplomatic isolation, China spared no effort to make the games a success – from stringent COVID-19 restrictions to blowing artificial snow. But ultimately, what the games will be remembered for is China’s assertive nationalism and its efforts to set a self-justifying narrative. Beijing used the Winter Olympics to project an image of a confident country to its citizens and the world outside. China used every trick from its playbook in its bid to do so. The efforts began early with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shutting out any criticism of China’s abject human rights record or any anti-China coverage. Just before the beginning of the games, the CCP launched a crackdown that involved rounding up human rights activists like Hu Jia and shutting down social media accounts critical of the government and games. These were accompanied by warnings from Beijing Organising Committee official Yang Shu, who unequivocally declared, “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” The Chinese actions had a ‘chilling effect’ as athletes and sponsoring corporates largely kept quiet about CCP’s poor track record in human rights protection, despite many international human rights organisations urging them to do so, using their influential role as celebrities. Moreover, as Human Rights Watch noted, China’s censorship seriously marred the spirit of the games and allowed the CCP to spread its propaganda. This assessment was reflected by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which noted extraordinary challenges, including the Chinese authorities’ haphazard or unclear instructions hampering the foreign journalists’ ability to report freely on the games.
China’s attempts to bulldoze its narrative and underline its assertive nationalism were also clearly visible when it selected Qi Fabao, a regiment commander of the People’s Liberation Army, who had fought during the Galwan Valley clashes with Indian troops in June 2020, as one of the torchbearers for the Olympic flame. At a time when an investigative report had pointed out that at least 38 Chinese troops drowned in a river during the Galwan clash, it was clear that Beijing was desperate to stamp out any anti-China reportage that could directly implicate the CCP leadership in the Chinese soldiers’ deaths.
However, Chinese efforts at narrative-setting didn’t stop there. During the Olympic games opening ceremony, China chose a Uighur, cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang to light the Olympic flame, which was nothing but an apparent bid by the CCP to divert attention away from its most repressive crackdown on the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province and project China in a positive light. Several human rights organisations, Western media reports, and evidence from the ground have documented China’s repression in the restive province, including the internment of more than one million residents. Yet the CCP would have none of it as it pressed ahead with its brazen attempt to display its façade of ethnic unity and cultural assimilation. As expected, human rights activists heavily criticised China for its attempts to gloss over reality. The criticism was led by the World Uyghur Congress, which said it was “shocking and insensitive” and that China was deliberately sending a blunt message to people it represses.” As its spokesperson, Zumretay Arkin, put it, “China’s government was sending a message: we control you, and we get to do whatever we want without being held accountable, and everyone is complicit in it.” But this criticism didn’t deter China. Throughout the games, Bejing unashamedly ran propaganda declaring Xinjiang as a preferred skiing destination for affluent Chinese. State media reports showed unending footage showing young wealthy Chinese traversing the region’s ski resorts, while simultaneously claiming that a ski fever has gripped the region. China’s attempts at cultural appropriation didn’t stop there. During the opening ceremony, a Chinese performer appeared wearing a traditional Korean dress, hanbok. This act of cultural appropriation invited instant criticism and angry reactions from South Koreans who denounced it as another attempt by China to claim parts of Korean culture – including its national dish, kimchi – as its own
Ironically, these Chinese endeavours came when China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, had advised the U.S. and other countries boycotting the Olympics that they should stop using the Olympic movement to play despicable political games. But the political significance of the Winter Olympics cannot be missed for the CCP. Under fire for bringing the world to a halt due to its mismanagement of Coronavirus, the party wanted to hold Olympics successfully. Now that the games are over and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the turn of events towards a new, post-Covid world order, China can trumpet its ‘success’ to the domestic audience and prepare them for another era of Chairman Xi Jinping’s paramount leadership.