The Xi’s Olympics: how the games were transformed into an international case

by Antonella Benedetto

Games expectations

The XXIV Winter Olympics in Beijing started on the 4th of February 2022. The city is the first to have hosted both Summer Olympics in 2008 and the 2022 Winter ones. The Games have provoked controversial opinions for a long time, risking transforming into a boomerang for different reasons. “The Zero Covid Strategy,” the Peng Shuai Case, the alleged “soft” boycotts of some nations’ official delegations due to the human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, the inefficacy of vaccines, and the consequent failure of the vaccination campaign, the backwardness of the Chinese national health system, the ineffectual, but the constructive virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, the Taiwan case and the role of China in the Russia-Ukrainian war are just some of the episodes creating shadows on the Games. So much that the international movement of Olympics and Paralympics sportsmen and women “Global Athletes” invited the participants to avoid political speech and critics against the Chinese government. In the meantime, the US, Australia, and the UK, the same three signatories countries of the AUKUS security pact, together with Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Lithuania, announced the non-attendance of their diplomatic mission at the Games. The deputy director-general of Beijing 2022 Yang Shu indeed reminded:

Any behavior or speeches against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.

The statement created tensions between the athletes, the American skier Hoffman feels and says:

Fear [for athletes over] the lack of ability to speak freely. My advice for athletes there and my hope for going there is to stay silent (Politico).

All these warnings are helpful to protect the Party from the critics. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, “China’s public image remains broadly negative.” Countries primarily developed democracies in Asia and the Western World, which had a pretty positive image of China ten years ago, changed their idea today. The main reasons are the Covid-19 management, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) debt contraction, the violation of human rights in Xinjiang, and the Law on Security in Hong Kong. The main reason can be attributed to the adoption, by Xi Jinping’s administration, of the so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” a coercive and belligerent way towards diplomatic practices and showing itself as a reliable partner.

A risky environment

The Olympics Games and other vital sports events had permanently transformed into a political battlefield, as happened when Washington decided for an international boycott during the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 to protest the Afghanistan invasion by the Soviet Union. As stated in November, no space for protests should exist for the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry since “politicising sports breaches the Olympic spirit,” pointing the finger specifically at the US. Also, Cyberattacks are central to the concerns of Beijing. The Winter Olympics might represent an excellent occasion for hackers to show their power. Hacktivists may instead hit Chinese sponsors by phishing for violating human rights in Xinjiang. Cyberattacks during the Games are not new in history: the Russian cyber espionage group “Fancy Bear” (also known as APT 28, Sofacy and Strontium) interrupted the Opening Ceremony in 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea. It is supposed to be the same criminal group that stole personal and sanitary information of sportswomen Venus Williams and Simone Biles during the 2016 Rio Olympics and during Tokyo 2020, the antidoping authorities. According to the American cybersecurity company “Recorded Future analysis, the risk of cyberattack, above all from Russia, Iran, and North Korea, is shallow since these latter do not have well-founded reasons to do it due to the tense geopolitical relations with China. Still, the risk is higher with the opposing countries.

Back to 2008

Sport has always represented a tool of soft power. During the XVII Congress of the Communist Party, president Hu Jintao put in the political agenda on the concept of soft power, (ruanshi li, 软实力) to create a “moderately prosperous society” (quanmian jianshe xiaokang shehui, 全面建设小康社会).

Olympics Games in China have mainly two interdependent goals: improve the country’s economic performance and be an instrument of soft power: a strong correlation exists between the number of medals won at the Olympics by China and the GDP growth. According to the “National Construction Plan of Winter Sports Infrastructure,” a document released by the Beijing Government in 2016, the 2022 Winter Games Infrastructure should be helpful not just for the Games in itself, but above all for the infrastructural development of the country. Also, back in time, on the occasion of the 2008 Beijing Winter Games, the government agency responsible for sports management in China, the “China’s General Administration of Sport” (GASC) in 2002, released “The Olympic Glory-winning Program Guidelines 2001-2010”, whose main goal was to gain as many medals as possible. “The Project 119” aimed at achieving best performance by Chinese athletes. Moreover, by the slogan “a world, one dream” (tongyige shijie, tongyige mengxiang, 同一个世界,同一个梦想), China stressed its interest for the world affairs involvement in its political, cultural and social actions.

What about now?

The atmosphere appears very different compared to the 2008 Beijing Winter Games. China was an open, resilient and dynamic nation, while the others were collapsing due to the financial crisis. China enjoyed a good reputation, ready to be the driving force of the world economy. Almost fifteen years later, China has seen no more than a threat, accused of being at the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic and re-creating a tension for some aspects analogous to the Cold War. Now the eyes of the world are pointed on the opening of the Two Sessions, the annual sit of the Chinese Parliament, planned for the 4th of March when the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will announce what China is intentioned to do in the future, the presumed opening, and the esteems of the international growth.

At the Games’ Eve, Xi affirmed that his democracy was real. The People’s Republic has a participative democracy, a “democracy with the integral and holistic process,” contrary to the Western World, whose democracy is exerted only during elections. However, the Beijing government is trying to conceal the political and social bouleversement with all the possible means: starting from the sport. The new national woman hero replaced the scandal of the tennis player Peng Shuai: the teenager skier Eileen Gu. She was born, grew, and trained in the US by a Chinese mother; she competed in the Chinese sports team. This choice created “a Han (the most numerous ethnicity in China) patriotism” in the Chinese people. The athlete embraces the major American political battle such as the “Black Lives Matter” and the fight against xenophobia and discrimination against the Asian-American minority in the US. However, the proper action of the Asian minority in America is protesting for the change in the admission policy, which will permit more places for Black and Hispanic students in universities.

Moreover, the Chinese government also seemed to have been affected by the greenwashing attitude since it organized “green,” “clean,” and carbon-neutral Games, re-using the 2008 Beijing Summer Games infrastructures. However, the reality shows another scenario since they were obliged to use artificial snow (as already happened in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games) due to the climate change crisis. In a way, the Chinese government must at least try to cover the dark shadows that its economy is living: the inefficacy to be independent of foreign markets, the crisis of internal consumption due to the covid, the liability of the real estate sector. Will the darkness be avoided on the “safe and splendid game?