Beijing Winter Olympics open, with Xi center stage

Koji Ito / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and IOC President Thomas Bach, left, attend the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the National Stadium in Beijing on Friday.

BEIJING — The 2022 Winter Olympics kicked off in Beijing on Friday with the world still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being an international sports festival with athletes from various countries and regions coming together, the focus of the Games has increasingly been inward facing, with China emphasizing the achievements of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who played leading roles in bringing the Summer and Winter Olympic Games to Beijing, the first city to host both events.

Bright lights illuminated the night sky during the opening ceremony at the National Stadium, commonly known as the Bird’s Nest. Spectators erupted in applause when Xi appeared together with other officials, including Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), at around 8 p.m.

It was a moment that appeared to indicate that Xi was the star of the show.

Before Xi’s opening declaration at the ceremony, Communist Party Secretary of Beijing Cai Qi, the top official of the host city, praised the administration, saying that the organizers had overcome the impact of the pandemic due to the efforts of Xi and the leadership of the Chinese government.

The performances at the ceremony featured mostly European classical music, with traditional Chinese influences toned down. But in the final stage, the propaganda flags were clear to see.

One of the two final torchbearers was a female athlete from the Uighur minority, who have been the victims of human rights violations by the Chinese authorities, it has been claimed.

The move was interpreted as China’s way of touting a kind of “national reconciliation” to deflect criticism from the United States and European countries over its human rights issues.

Just as with the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, these Winter Games will serve as a stage for the country to enhance its national prestige.

However, while the 2008 Olympics staged during the administration of President Hu Jintao was held “for the party,” the critical difference this time is “the strong impression that the Olympics are being held for Xi, who aims to extend his leadership by inaugurating a third administration [at the party congress later this year].” according to a diplomatic source in Beijing.

When China declared its candidacy to host the Winter Olympics in 2013 — the year after the inauguration of the Xi administration — most Chinese people were not familiar with winter sports, which “made it difficult to imagine China winning the bid,” a Chinese source said.

Beijing’s bid was successful partly because other leading candidate cities withdrew from the race.

Xi has made the most of the opportunity, using the achievements of the Games as a stepping stone to enhance his authority and realize his long-term leadership.

An article published on Feb. 2 in the party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, praised Xi for realizing the goal of increasing the number of Chinese people who participate in winter sports to 300 million.

The long-term plan through 2035 that the administration adopted last year includes a goal of making China a “strong sporting nation.”

Leaders from such countries as Russia and Kazakhstan attended the opening ceremony.

The United States, Britain and other countries that had declared a diplomatic boycott did not send high-ranking officials because of the human rights violations by Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Mindful that the Tokyo Games were postponed due to the pandemic, Xi has emphasized the national achievement of holding the Games on schedule.

He probably wants to take advantage of the success of the Olympics to consolidate his power at home, as he looks to secure an unprecedented third-term at the National Congress of the Communist Party later this year.