Beijing Olympics : Summer vs Winter by Lt Gen PR Shankar (R)

Beijing  is the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympics. The summer Olympics were warm and welcomed by the world. The winter Olympics are cold and  frigid laced with geopolitical animosity. China will boast that Beijing hosting  both Olympics, is an indication of its comprehensive national power and national capabilities. The Games are going to be declared a great success by the Communist Party. It’s not going to be perceived as such by others. Besides this, the games have thrown up other  issues also. 


In 2000, China was a rising power. It was becoming a manufacturing powerhouse with a lucrative market. The 2008 Olympics were therefore allotted to Beijing.  It was to be a coming out party for Communist China.  It was also to be the landmark moment in history.  A rising China would thereafter be part of a new seamless international order. There were hopes that hosting the Olympics successfully would set China on a path of democracy. At that time, Tibetan protests were at their peak. They were crushed ruthlessly by China. Everyone wanted China to succeed. Tibetans became dispensable and all was overlooked.  That was the extent of global goodwill and hope of change. Some other factors weighed in. In 2008,  there was a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan that killed an estimated 70,000 people. The tragedy generated massive international sympathy for China. The Chinese used the goodwill generated by the earthquake to show China off during the games.  On China’s part, it appeared that it left no stone unturned. Thousands of Chinese were taught English to make international visitors to the Beijing Olympics feel welcome. Travel restrictions on foreign correspondents were lifted. The then US President,  George W. Bush even joined the crowds in Beijing. Beijing Summer Olympics 2008 was an unqualified success. China was successful in wooing the world. It had risen.


China changed after the Summer Olympics. However it was not in the way the world hoped. As  its GDP grew from $5 trillion in 2008 to $18 trillion in 2021,  it has also tripled military spending. Its military prowess expanded exponentially. China assertively demands pre-eminence in the world order. It has usurped Hongkong,  reneged on its promises in the South China Sea to enforce illegal sovereignty , instigated a clash with India and constantly threatens Taiwan of  invading it. Forget becoming a democracy, China is immensely proud of its authoritarian one-party political system, which it touts as better than democracies. In 2008, China under Hu Jintao, sought to be seen as a responsible  stakeholder in the global system. China, under Xi Jinping, outrightly rejects the existing global order and wants to establish its own through wolf warrior diplomacy, military muscle, economic clout and debt traps. In the intervening fourteen years it has put a million Uighurs in re-education centres, nee concentration camps. Most importantly, it systematically exported the pandemic to the world. An untrustworthy China has embarked on a revisionist path to its Maoist roots.. Artist Ai Weiwei worked as an adviser on the design of the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing in 2008. Ai Weiwei is now in exile overseas. The space for any independent, bold, artistic expression, even if remotely against the system has long closed. The contrast  between winter and summer Olympics is stark. The blinkers through which China was viewed in 2008 have come off in 2022. The picture is not rosy.  


The Beijing Winter Olympics  will be remembered as controversial as the Summer Games were appreciated. An intriguing issue is that Beijing is not a mountainous city and it does not have snow! The skiing, snowboarding and sliding events will be held in Yanqing, 85 km away from the capital, and Zhangjiakou, 160 km away – on the edge of the Gobi desert. Even more intriguing  is that these remote venues see minimal snowfall – Zhangjiakou averages eight inches of snow per year and  Yanqing gets a measly two inches. The entire games will be held on about 1.2 million cubic metres of artificial snow. That is a great fake to start with. Beijing edged out Almaty as the venue for reasons best known to the IOC. My view is that IOC was compromised long back just as China has compromised  WHO and other institutions systematically. The fact that IOC was compromised  clearly surfaced during the Peng Shuai affair. Strangely, IOC allotted winter Olympics to a city without snow. Laughably ludicrous. Further China has been tom tomming about delivering a ‘Green Games’ to the world. What kind of ‘Green Games’ are these which are taking place in one of the driest places in the country and on almost entirely man-made snow. As China keeps trying to prove to the world that it is great, its artificiality keeps coming through to reiterate its untrustworthy nature.   


The Winter Games are being held in empty stadiums due to the Wuhan Virus. Athletes , games officials and personnel are confined to a “closed-loop” bubble. They are subject to Chinese Zero Covid restrictions that are way more stricter than those at the Tokyo Olympics. The reactions of the participants is that the restrictions are confusing, disorienting, convoluted and alarmingly restrictive.  In fact one of the Belgian athletes was terrified after being put through a Chinese quarantine! A Russian athlete has stated that the food is inedible. There are also plenty of warnings about surveillance of athletes and what will happen to them if they make anti-China comments or other displays of protest against local authorities. All participants have been given an app by China which they have to use  for daily Covid monitoring. There is widespread concern that data loaded on it such as medical and travel histories could be exploited by China later. Several countries are advising their athletes to leave their main devices at home and use burner phones at the Games.


The winter games are being held in Beijing under the shadow of many cross currents. Firstly there is intense rivalry and distrust, bordering on animosity between China and the United States. Secondly, unfavourable views of China have been at or near historic highs in most of the advanced economies which were surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year. Thirdly, China’s human  rights record has caused international concern. Its  human rights abuses and repression against Uyghurs in  Xinjiang has been  described as genocide. China has not allowed the UN envoy on human rights to visit Xinjiang to make an independent assessment. It has already started to compromise the envoy and putting pressure so that a joint, watered down report, comes out or the entire issue is obfuscated. Fourthly,  a PLA soldier, who was part of the force that attacked Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in 2020, is one of the torchbearers   at the opening ceremony. This is a pointed and direct affront to India. All this has resulted in the  US, UK, Canada, India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia to declare a diplomatic boycott. Japan has not sent a minister to the Games, but it is sending Olympic officials. New Zealand, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden and the Netherlands are not sending government representatives, citing Covid as the reason. Just over 20 presidents, prime ministers, heads of state and royalty are attending the event. Half hail from authoritarian countries. Leaders of major democratic powers are notably absent. Overall, the response to the games is muted. Some have declared that the opening ceremonies were an artless, uninspired dud. Already the event has been marred by controversy with the Chinese team being handed over a controversial win in an event. A cold Chinese winter indeed. 


India has three reasons to ponder deeply upon the outcomes of these games. Firstly, India has increased its trade with China to unprecedented levels. India gave tacit support to China when diplomatic boycott of the games were announced by others. The return gifts are that a Chinese diplomat writes to our politicians directing them not to interact with Tibetans events in Delhi.  A Chinese diplomat in Sri Lanka is making overtures to the Tamils to gain space right next to India. The cherry on this bitter cake is  use of a PLA soldier from Galwan as one of the torchbearers .  When will our government mandarins ever learn? From 1962 to now, every positive overture from India has been met with hostile action by China. All one on one meetings between our PM and Xi Jinping  at Sabarmati, Wuhan and Mamallapuram have only resulted in encroachments by the PLA in Doklam or Eastern Ladakh.  This ‘torchbearer’ play , reinforces that China remains an untrustworthy and hostile neighbour. We definitely need to need to learn something  from the Russian method of dealing with neighbours. A little less electioneering will also do India a lot of good.  Secondly, Xi Jinping and Imran Khan met during the Games. The Sino Pak joint statement opposes unilateral actions (by India) that complicate the Kashmir issue. Chinese support for safeguarding Pakistani sovereignty, independence and security, as well as promoting its socio-economic development and prosperity was reaffirmed. Many of us in India think that Pakistan is in a debt trap with China and will become some sort of a Chinese colony. Nothing like that will happen. Chinese financing of Pakistan started in 1972 with Chou en lai and continues till date with Xi Jinping. In any case Pakistan has not repaid anything to anyone. India needs to be prepared for enhanced Sino-Pak collusivity.  Thirdly, the most prominent leader who attended the event was Putin. Xi Jinping and Putin had a one on one session and came out with a lengthy political statement declaring a new phase of Sino Russian friendship. Both are fully aligned on the Ukraine issue. There are also reports of both of them cobbling an axis consisting of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Syria to counter NATO and USA. Where does it leave India’s  strategic partnership with Russia? India needs some serious internal re-evaluation. Someone at apex levels needs to wake up from strategic slumber. 


Getting back to the Olympics and the Chinese play. Any major virus outbreak hereafter,  anywhere in China, will be blamed on the Olympics and the foreigners who broke its Zero Covid Policy to pollute it wilfully. Incidentally sponsors who have paid eye-watering sums to be connected with the Games have not been flaunting those links. That tells you the success or failure of these games.  Wait and watch. More will come as the games progress.   



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