China’s pandemic Olympics begin with lockdown, boycotts


The country where the coronavirus outbreak emerged two years ago launched a locked-down Winter Olympics today, proudly projecting its might on the most global of stages even as some Western Governments mounted a diplomatic boycott over the way China treats millions of its own people.
Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the Games open during an opening ceremony heavy on ice-blue tones and winter imagery that was held in the same lattice-encased National Stadium that hosted the inaugural event at the 2008 Olympics.
That makes Beijing the first city to host both 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 privately with Xi earlier in the day as a dangerous standoff unfolds at Russia’s border with Ukraine.
India announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games after China fielded Qi Fabao, the regimental commander of the People’s Liberation Army, who was injured during the 2020 military face-off with Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, as a torchbearer for the event’s Torch Relay.
The Olympics – and the opening ceremony – are always an exercise in performance for the host nation, a chance to showcase its culture, define its place in the world, flaunt its best side. That’s something China in particular has been consumed with for decades. But at this year’s Beijing Games, the gulf between performance and reality will be particularly jarring.
Fourteen years ago, a Beijing opening ceremony that featured massive pyrotechnic displays and thousands of card-flipping performers set a new standard of extravagance to start an Olympics that no host since has matched. It was a fitting start to an event often billed as China’s “coming out.”
Now, no matter how you view 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 world player and 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 that transformation, the opening ceremony Friday was staged at the same stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest – that held the 2008 version. Back then, 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 control over Hong Kong, becoming more confrontational with Taiwan and interning Muslim Uyghurs in the far west – a crackdown the US government and others have called genocide.
The pandemic also weighs heavily on this year’s Games, just as it did last summer in Tokyo. More than two years after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in China’s Hubei province, nearly 6 million human beings have died and hundreds of millions more around the world have been sickened.
The host country itself claims some of the lowest rates of death and illness from the virus, in part because of strict lockdowns imposed by the government aimed at quickly stamping out any outbreaks. Such measures instantly greeted anyone arriving to compete in or attend the Winter Games. (PTI)