The Xi Games 3 : Athletes also told to follow China’s party line or face consequences

Koki Kataoka / The Yomiuri Shimbun
From left, the busts of IOC President Thomas Bach, former IOC Presidents Jacques Rogge and Juan Antonio Samaranch, and a statue of modern Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin are displayed in a park in central Beijing on Jan. 29.

In a park in central Beijing, a bust of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was unveiled in January. It was made in a similar style to two other busts already installed there of Bach’s predecessors, Jacques Rogge and Juan Antonio Samaranch. Alongside these busts is another statue that was already in place, that of a seated Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Together they symbolize the friendly relationship between China and the IOC.

Bach, especially, has clearly been on China’s side.

After tennis star Peng Shuai alleged that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her, her whereabouts in China became unknown. It was Bach who then held a videoconference with Peng in November last year, a typical case of the IOC chief trying to defuse the controversies surrounding China.

Some Western nations, including the United States and Britain, are diplomatically boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics. During a meeting Bach held with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Jan. 25, he made remarks seen as being aligned with the wishes of the Chinese leader.

Bach said that as there are nations participating in the Winter Olympics for the first time, the Beijing Games have gained support from a wide swath of the international community. He added that the international community also opposes politicizing sports.

Despite Bach’s words supporting Beijing, only 25 countries will send heads of government to the opening ceremony, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s announcement on Jan. 28.

True, the Beijing Winter Olympics are being held in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the number is a sharp drop from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when more than 80 countries, including Japan and the United States, sent heads of government.

The countries attending this time are mainly those China has close ties with, such as Russia and Kazakhstan.

A person at a Chinese newspaper who has worked as a foreign correspondent lamented, “The impression that it’s a gathering of China’s inner circle is undeniable.”

Political messaging

The Feb. 4 opening ceremony could also be an occasion for China to showcase its inward-looking vision.

Zhang Yimou, the filmmaker who staged the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Games, is back at the helm for the 2022 Games.

In a recent interview with Chinese media, Zhang echoed Xi’s diplomatic slogan of “a community with a shared future for mankind,” placing the construction of this “grand idea” as the theme for the opening ceremony. What it suggests is that the political vision of the Chinese president, who is also secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, will form a through line for the ceremony.

For the 2008 Olympics, the opening ceremony had as its centerpiece China’s extensive history and its culture proudly on display.

Despite that, the international community surely had “the vague hope that China would be an open great power that would fit in with the rest of the world,” said a Southeast Asian diplomatic source.

Then Chinese President Hu Jintao said at a banquet with foreign heads of government that the hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games would strengthen the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese people and people of all other countries.

This time, there are no signs of such expectations. With foreign criticism of China’s human rights situation in mind, Xi clearly stated during a ceremony in July last year on the 100th anniversary of the party’s establishment, “We will not, however, accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.”

Muzzling athletes

Twitter and other online services blocked by authorities in mainland China are accessible in the athletes village and press centers that opened Jan. 27. Restrictions have been relaxed only within these bubbles, which are isolated from the general public as a measure to prevent infections with the novel coronavirus.

The prevailing view, however, according to a human rights lawyer, is that the Chinese authorities are only trying to improve China’s image, as the government has been criticized over its tight regulation of speech.

During a press conference on Jan. 19, a senior member of the Beijing Games organizing committee said, “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, is also subject to certain punishment.”

This remark has been interpreted as a warning to athletes and other visitors not to voice criticism about human rights problems in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region or elsewhere in China.

The Games athletes who star in this “festival of peace” are being pressured by China’s inward-looking logic.

“Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns,” Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, a group advocating the rights of athletes, said according to a Reuters report.

“There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” he said. “So we’re advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete and use their voice when they get home.”

— This three-part series was created by The Yomiuri Shimbun’s China correspondents Daisuke Kawase, Rie Tagawa and Sayaka Nambu.