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

Chinese President Xi Jinping tours Beijing's National Speed Skating Oval, a competition venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics, on Jan. 4. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua News Agency/AP)
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In preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping has inspected the closets in athletes’ rooms, advised on decorations for the main skating rink (it should include more “Chinese elements”) and given instructions to party officials, volunteers and journalists (tell “good stories” about the Games).

Few leaders of Olympic host countries have been as closely tied to the event’s success or failure as Xi, who oversaw the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as vice president and in 2014 pushed his country’s bid for the 2022 Winter Games. Addressing the International Olympic Committee in a video message on Thursday, he said, “The world is turning its eyes to China and China is ready.”

In early January, Xi said of the Games: “History will engrave this stroke, and the world will have a new understanding of China’s road.”

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For the country’s most powerful ruler in decades, the Olympics are a chance to cast China as a global leader to be respected and emulated, and an opportunity to claw back some of the goodwill lost over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its confrontational “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.

“The last two years haven’t been great for China. This is an opportunity to show some of the positive side of China,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund.

The Games are a test for Xi, who in the fall is expected to take on a controversial third term — effectively confirming him as indefinite ruler of a country that has not seen such centralized power since the chaotic reign of Mao Zedong.

The Games are also a gamble for China, whose population, while more than 80 percent vaccinated, is especially vulnerable to the omicron variant. To host more than 10,000 athletes and other participants, authorities have resorted to harsh neighborhood or citywide lockdowns not seen since early 2020, further stalling the country’s economic recovery and stoking rare outpourings of public anger.

Between an outbreak of the omicron variant and a diplomatic boycott by Western countries, along with the possibility of a foreign athlete speaking out against human rights abuses, the potential for embarrassment for Xi and the Chinese leadership is high. Unlike the 2008 Summer Olympics — a showcase of the nation’s dramatic development up to that point — the 2022 Games are a reflection on Xi’s leadership, under which China has grown more influential but also more isolated and at loggerheads with the United States and other Western democracies.

“The political significance of the 2022 Games is not about China but about Xi. He wants to prove that under his leadership his country’s system can overcome all obstacles. If the Games are a success, the credit will go to Xi himself,” said Lai I-Chung, president of the Prospect Foundation, a security and foreign affairs think tank in Taipei, Taiwan.

China warns foreign Olympic athletes against speaking out on politics at Winter Games

Authorities have gone to great lengths to prevent any mishaps during the Olympics, which will run Friday through Feb. 20, followed by the Paralympics from March 4 through March 13. To guard against the coronavirus, only approved groups already in China will be admitted to venues as spectators.

Athletes and participants are restricted to a “closed-loop” bubble, sealing them off from the general Chinese population. Chinese officials said Thursday that at least 287 of more than 10,000 foreign arrivals over the past week had tested positive for the coronavirus, either at the airport or within the Olympic bubble.

City officials have called on companies to let their employees work from home and ordered residents to avoid contact with those coming for the Olympics, even in the event of a car crash. All arrivals to Beijing must be tested for the coronavirus within 72 hours. Millions have been locked down across the country in response to small outbreaks. A blogger who posted a video of workers protesting lockdown measures in Tianjin in January later was visited by police.

When asked recently about the possibility of political protests by athletes, an official said at a briefing held by the Chinese Embassy in Washington that any athlete who flouts Chinese rules or laws will be subject to “certain punishment.”

In the weeks leading up to the Games, authorities quietly detained several activists. On Jan. 11, Hunan-based human rights lawyer Xie Yang was taken away by state security agents, according to a post on Twitter by his wife, Chen Guiqiu. That same week, Yang Maodong, a Chinese activist and writer who goes by the pen name Guo Feixiong, was arrested after months of pleas to authorities to lift a travel ban so he could see his terminally ill wife in the United States. She died days before his arrest.

For Xi, holding the Winter Olympics, whose past hosts have typically been Western countries, is a point of pride, a way to show that China is on “equal footing” with the Group of Seven economic powers and other advanced industrial countries, according to Lai.

Chinese organizers of the Games, “taking Xi Jinping Thought as their core,” according to official statements, are determined to present an image to the world of a technologically advanced and responsible nation. The 100-minute Opening Ceremonies will focus “on the future … a reflection of advances in our country’s strength and position,” Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who was charged with choreographing the event, told state media.

Officials have promised that the event will be carbon-neutral, with venues powered by renewable energy, and water that is used to produce snow and ice recycled afterward. Robots will deliver food, take temperature readings, disinfect venues and hand out awards.

“Before such a major political event,” Lai said, referring to the party congress coming in the fall, the Games are “an important symbol of China’s national strength.”

“They will hold [these Olympics] if it kills them.”

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And credit for everything will go to Xi. On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV said that “from the idea of hosting the Games to the planning, construction, safety measures and more, General Secretary Xi Jinping has always personally led the course.”

Still, the Games may not bring China a needed soft-power boost or do much to burnish its credentials as a rising power. Its recent human rights record — from the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement to allegations of genocide in the Xinjiang region — have led some to call Beijing the “most ill-advised” site for the Games since Berlin in 1936. The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia are not sending official delegations, though their athletes will compete.

“In 2008, China was still emerging as a global player. Now, it has the ambition to be a global superpower, but how much the Olympics are going to get them there, I’m personally a little skeptical,” said Glaser, noting a “growing chasm” between how China is seen in developing nations vs. the West.

At home, a successful Winter Olympics is key for legitimizing China’s stringent “zero covid” policy. For Xi, “holding the Winter Olympics in the middle of the pandemic will show how superior China’s system is,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

China’s pandemic approach has kept cases low but exacerbated an economic slowdown and led to increasingly severe restrictions. Hospitals, afraid to violate the strict measures, turned away pregnant women, and one case resulted in the loss of a baby. Authorities are doing contact tracing for those who have come in touch with international mail — which officials are blaming for new infections — and quarantining residents and delivery workers. Many Chinese spent a third Lunar New Year, the country’s most important holiday, without family and friends.

As omicron arrives in China, covid restrictions leave millions facing holidays without family

In rare criticism, an article written by Shen Kui, a law professor at prestigious Peking University, questioned policies that emphasize the collective over the individual. “We owe an apology and thanks to the minority making sacrifices. The government should feel apologetic and grateful to them,” Shen wrote.

Frustration, while mostly subdued, increasingly resembles public anger in the initial outbreak in Wuhan, when officials insisted that the virus was not contagious.

“When covid first hit, suddenly there was criticism that you had never heard before,” Tsang said. “If the Olympics are not successful, there would be a risk of those people coming back again.”

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