Despite its repeated insistence that other countries keep politics out of the 2022 Winter Olympics, host country China is using the quadrennial sports showcase to promote its own political messages in subtle ways, observers say.
As examples they cite the selection of a soldier who was injured fighting Indian troops as an Olympic torch bearer, and the appearance of a member of the nation’s beleaguered Uyghur minority in a pre-Games cauldron lighting ceremony.
Analysts point to shifts in geopolitics since Beijing hosted the country’s first Olympics in the summer of 2008. Chinese relations with Western countries such as the United States were closer that year than now, while COVID-19 was more than a decade away from making its first appearance — in China. Chinese control over Hong Kong, its touchy relationship with Australia and flyovers near Taiwan had also not hit their current-day fervor.
“Politics are inevitably involved when athletes compete wearing their national flags,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “But because of China’s human rights issues, aggressive foreign policies and the COVID-19 pandemic, an atmosphere of distrust surrounds the Beijing Winter Games.”
Chinese officials reject the idea the country has introduced politics into the Games.
The Beijing Winter Olympics are “a grand gathering of global winter sports athletes and fans, rather than a platform for certain politicians’ political stunts,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said in December.
India, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, global Muslims
Nevertheless, when Indian officials spotted the appearance of a People’s Liberation Army regiment commander, Qi Fabao, bearing an Olympic torch earlier this month, they announced that New Delhi would not send officials to the February 4-20 event. Qi’s head was injured as he fought Indian soldiers in the deadly 2020 Galwan Valley clash with China over a disputed border
And one of two Chinese athletes who joined a pre-Games cauldron lighting ceremony was cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who is ethnically Uyghur. Western governments and human rights groups believe China is repressing the political and religious freedoms of other Uyghurs, a largely Muslim group in the country’s Xinjiang region.
China’s handling of Uyghurs resonated with Malaysians, who are also predominantly Muslim. From 2017 into 2019, Uyghurs living in the Southeast Asian country brought the issue to the public’s attention, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur.
Now, even though Malaysia sent two alpine skiers to the Beijing Games this month, many Malays there aren’t watching the Games on television, he said. Ethnic Chinese Malaysians are more likely to watch as they like seeing China play host.
“I would imagine people who are watching China would feel it’s politicized, but the Malaysian public is divided,” Suffian said.
There has also been an outcry in South Korea over what some say is China’s “appropriation” of Korean culture, Easley said.
The appearance of a woman wearing hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, as one of China’s ethnic minority groups at the opening ceremony angered people in South Korea who took the display as a Chinese claim to a part of Korean culture.
“Already there has been controversy over the use of hanbok traditional dress at the opening ceremony … and whether Seoul should have joined other U.S. allies in a diplomatic boycott,” Easley said.
In another hint of politics, one state-run China Central TV announcer called the Taiwanese Olympic team “China, Taipei” rather than by its official label, Chinese Taipei, CNN reported. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and its officials prefer names that link the island to their country.
Diplomatic boycotts and diplomatic meetings
In the two months before Beijing’s Games, 15 countries including the U.S. declared “diplomatic boycotts” of the event, saying government officials would not attend the Games, often citing human rights issues in China.
Following the U.S. diplomatic boycott, Zhao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, “The Winter Olympics is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation.”
However, diplomatic meetings and political discourse have been taking place at the Beijing Games.
China and Russia issued a statement hours before the Games opened opposing the expansion of the Western military alliance NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was visiting Beijing at the time, says Western powers have broken promises about expanding the formerly anti-Soviet alliance, and his country has massed troops near its border with Ukraine.
The two old allies asked NATO to “abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches.”
And Chinese leadership invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to the opening ceremonies, where the two sides signed or concluded a number of agreements in areas ranging from infrastructure and space to sports and culture.
Bond between sports, politics?
Chinese officials associate the development of elite sports to their status as a rising power, according to a 2017 Hong Kong Baptist University study. China’s history of equating sports with its national image has primed Olympics observers overseas to watch for signs of politics in the Games, said Mark Thomas, managing director of the U.K.-based, China-event-focused S2M Group sports consultancy.
“China and politics and sports are one and the same thing, and I think that in many ways there are problems,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the reasons maybe why certain commentators in the West see China’s use of sports as just a tool for statecraft in terms of positioning itself as a growing, emerging and eventually dominant power in the world.”
The rise of China since the 2008 Games has some foreign countries hoping this year’s Olympics somehow “fail,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington. China has become more “irritating” in response, she said.
“Domestically, the Chinese are trying to manipulate this event into a patriotism-boosting ceremony, but that inevitably gets into the sticky question of China’s relationships with the countries that it has had problems with,” Sun said.