BEIJING (AP) — The country where the coronavirus outbreak originated two years ago has launched a lockdown Winter Olympics Friday, proudly projecting its might on the most global stages even as some Western governments staged a diplomatic boycott over China’s treatment of millions of its own citizens.
The opening ceremony began just after Chinese President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach arrived at the same national lattice stadium that hosted the inaugural event of the 2008 Olympics.
With the lights dimming and a countdown in fireworks, Beijing became the first city to host the Winter and Summer Games. And while some are staying away from the second pandemic Olympics in six months, many other world leaders attended the opening ceremony. Most notable: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met in private Xi earlier in the day as a dangerous standoff is unfolding on the border between Russia and Ukraine.
The Olympics – and the opening ceremony – are always an exercise in performance for the host country, a chance to showcase its culture, define its place in the world, show off its best side. It’s something China in particular has been consuming for decades. But at this year’s Beijing Games, the gap between performance and reality will be particularly shocking.
Fourteen years ago, an opening ceremony in Beijing, which featured huge fireworks displays and thousands of card-flipping performers, set a new standard of extravagance to kick off an Olympics that no host could has since equaled. It was a fitting start to an event often touted as China’s “coming out”.
Now, however you look at it, China has arrived – but the hope for a more open country that accompanied those first Games has faded.
For Beijing, these Olympics are a confirmation of its status as a world player and a power. But for many outside China, particularly in the West, they have become a confirmation of the country’s increasingly authoritarian turn.
As if to underline this transformation, Friday’s opening ceremony took place in the same stadium – known as Bird’s Nest – that hosted the 2008 version. At the time, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei consulted on its construction. Now he is one of the country’s best-known dissidents and lives in exile.
Chinese authorities are crushing pro-democracy activism, tightening their grip on Hong Kong, becoming more confrontational with Taiwan and interning Muslim Uyghurs in the far west – a crackdown the US government and others have called a genocide.
the the pandemic weighs so heavily on this year’s Games, just as he did last summer in Tokyo. More than two years after the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in China’s Hubei Province, nearly 6 million people have died and hundreds of millions more around the world have fallen ill.
The host country itself claims some of the lowest rates of death and illness from the virus, in part due to strict government-imposed lockdowns aimed at stamping out any outbreaks quickly. Such measures immediately welcomed anyone arriving to participate in or attend the Winter Games.
As the Olympics approach, China’s suppression of dissent has also manifested itself in the controversy surrounding Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. She disappeared from public view last year after accusing a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. His accusation was quickly scrubbed from the internet and his discussion remains heavily censored.
In the shadow of these political stakes, China put on a show. As Xi sat down, the performers turned to him and bowed repeatedly. A simultaneous cheer rose from them, and they raised and waved their pom-poms towards their chairman – China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. A flurry of fireworks, some of which spelled “spring,” announced that the festivities were near.
A line of people dressed in costumes representing China’s various ethnicities passed the national flag to the mast where it was hoisted – a show of unity the country often showcases as part of its narrative that its wide range of ethnic groups live together in peace and prosperity.
Politics worked its way into the proceedings, so gently. The parade of athletes from Taiwan – the island democracy that China says it owns – was greeted with cheers from the crowd, as were the Russian competitors. An overcast Putin stood up and waved at the delegation, nodding sharply as they walked.
The stadium was relatively full – but by no means at full capacity – after authorities decided to allow a select group to attend the events.
Once the cauldron is lit, as with all Olympics, the focus on Saturday will shift – at least partially – from the geopolitical issues of the day to the athletes themselves.
All eyes are now on the question of whether Alpine skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin, who already has three Olympic medals, can exceed the highest expectations. How? ‘Or’ What snowboarding sensation Shaun White will crown his Olympic career – and if the the sport’s current standard bearer, Chloe Kim, will still amaze us. And if Russian women will win the medals in figure skating.
And China is pinning its hopes on Eileen Guthe 18-year-old American freestyle skier who chose to compete for her mother’s native country and could win three gold medals.
As they compete, the conditions imposed by Chinese authorities contrast sharply with the festive atmosphere of the 2008 Games. Some flight attendants, immigration officers and hotel staff were covered from the head feet with protective equipment against hazardous materials, masks and goggles. There is a daily testing regime for all participants, followed by lengthy quarantines for anyone who tests positive.
Even so, there is no passage from the Olympic venues through the ubiquitous cords of chain-link fence – covered in joyous messages of a “shared future together” – in the city itself, another point of disagreement with the 2008 Games.
China itself also transformed in the years that followed. Second, it was an emerging global economic force that took its biggest leap forward on the world stage by hosting these Games. It is now a rising superpower that hosts them. Xi, who was the helm of the 2008 Olympics, now rules the entire country and has encouraged a personality-driven adulation campaign.
Gone are the hopeful claims by Western organizers and governments that the Olympics organization would pressure the ruling Communist Party to clean up what they called its problematic human rights record. man and become a more responsible international citizen.
Three decades after his troops crushed massive democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of Chinese, the government locked up around 1 million members of minority groups, mostly Muslim Uyghurs from its region of far western Xinjiang, in mass internment camps. The situation has led human rights groups to dub them the “genocide games”.
China says the camps are “vocational training and education centers” that are part of an anti-terrorism campaign and have closed. He denies any violation of human rights.
Such behavior led the leaders of the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, among others, to impose a diplomatic boycott on these Games, avoiding appearances alongside Chinese leaders while allowing their athletes to compete.
Outside of the Olympic “bubble” that separates regular Beijingers from Olympians and their entourages, some have expressed excitement and pride that the world is coming to their doorstep. Zhang Wenquan, an Olympic memorabilia collector, said on Friday he was excited, but that was tempered by the virus that has changed so much for so many people.
“I think the fireworks effect will be much better than in 2008,” he said. “I actually wanted to go to the location to watch it. … But because of the epidemic, there may not be a chance.
AP video producers Olivia Zhang and Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report. Follow London-based AP journalist Sarah DiLorenzo on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sdilorenzo
Sarah Dilorenzo, Associated Press