BEIJING (AP) — The country where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged two years ago kicked off a locked-down Winter Olympics on Friday, proudly projecting its might on the most global stages even as some Western governments mounted a diplomatic boycott over China’s treatment of millions of its own people.
Beijing becomes the first city to host the Winter and Summer Olympics. And while some are staying away from this second pandemic Olympics in six months, many other world leaders have planned to attend the opening ceremony. Most notable: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met privately with China’s Xi Jinping earlier today as a dangerous standoff unfolded on the Russia-Ukraine border.
The Olympic Games – and the opening ceremony – are always an exercise in performance for the host country, a chance to showcase its culture, to define its place in the world, to display 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 see it, China has arrived – and the opening ceremony returns to the same now familiar, lattice-work national stadium known as the Bird’s Nest, built in consultation with the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
But the hope of a more open China brought by these 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.
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 pandemic is also weighing heavily on this year’s Games, just as it 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 the sweeping government-imposed lockdowns that were immediately apparent to anyone arriving to compete or attend these Winter Games. .
In the run-up to the Games, China’s suppression of dissent was also evident 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.
Concerned for his safety, tennis stars and human rights activists outside China have taken to social media to ask, “Where is Peng Shuai?” A surreal game of cat and mouse has since unfolded, with Peng making a brief appearance at a youth tennis event and speaking via video link with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach as part of efforts aimed at allaying concerns about him.
While political issues have eclipsed preparation, 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 whether alpine skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, who already has three Olympic medals, can exceed the highest expectations. How snowboarding sensation Shaun White will crown his Olympic career – and whether the sport’s current standard-bearer, Chloe Kim, will wow us again. And if the Russian figure skater will win the medals in figure skating.
And China is pinning its hopes on Eileen Gu, the 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 the Chinese authorities contrast even more with the festive atmosphere of the 2008 Games. Some flight attendants, immigration officers and hotel staff have been covered with the head to toe with hazmat protective equipment, 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 fencing – covered in cheery messages of a “shared future together” – into the city itself, another stark contrast to the festive atmosphere of 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. Now a fully realized superpower 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.
Now, three decades after its troops crushed massive democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese people, the government has locked up en masse more than a million members of minority groups, mostly Muslim Uyghurs from his far western region of Xinjiang. 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. He denies any human rights violations and claims to have restored stability to Xinjiang, a region which he says in the months following the September 11 attacks was plagued by extremism, often with little proofs.
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, showed off his collection on Friday as he stood next to a 2008 mascot. He was excited, but the excitement was tempered by the microscopic virus that has changed so much for so many of people.
“I think the fireworks effect will be much better than in 2008,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the opening ceremony. Actually, I wanted to go there to watch it. I tried so hard to watch it at the venue. But because of the epidemic, there can’t -be no luck.
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