In Beijing, Olympic Spectacle and Global Power Games
BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Friday opened an Olympics meant to celebrate his country’s increasingly secure global status, standing defiantly alongside his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, in a competition of increasingly ideological with the United States and its allies.
While President Biden and other Democratic leaders avoided the opening ceremony due to human rights abuses in China, Mr. Xi drew his own group of supporting guests. Mr Putin, another strong leader bristling at US demands, appeared with him in a calculated show of solidarity as Moscow’s tensions with Ukraine could boil over into war.
The meeting with Mr Putin, along with the opening ceremony, amounted to a choreographed demonstration of China’s changing place in the world – wanting to win over countries wary of its growing power, but increasingly impatient and dismissive of Western censorship.
It also underscored the determination of China and Russia to present a united front against the West, in general, and the United States in particular – exactly the result that President Richard M. Nixon and his security adviser national, Henry A. Kissinger, tried to avoid with their opening to China in 1971.
In a joint statement after Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin met, they said their friendship had “no bounds” and that China sided with Russia on one of its critical security requirements: the end of NATO’s expansion eastward and closer to Russia’s borders. .
The two leaders called on the United States to abandon plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia and denounced what they see as American interference in their internal affairs by fomenting “color revolutions”, public uprisings in former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine. calling for more democracy.
“Russia and China oppose attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” they said in the 5,300-word statement, which illustrated the growing rift between democracies and autocracies.
In a message directly addressed to the United States, the two leaders pledged to “counter the interference of external forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, to oppose color revolutions and to strengthen cooperation in the above-mentioned areas”.
The statement made no mention of mutual support in Russia’s tensions over Ukraine and China with Taiwan, signaling the limits of the growing partnership.
Understanding Russia’s relationship with the West
Tension between the regions is rising and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and press his demands.
“This statement reflects the nature of the relationship with China,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s deeper and deeper, more and more directed against the United States, but it’s not an alliance where the two sides support each other on everything.”
After the uncompromising geopolitics of his talks with Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi presided over the opening spectacular of the Winter Games at the national “Bird’s Nest” stadium. The ceremony, which lasted more than two hours on a clear and freezing night, was filled with images of China as a friendly and open host, despite imposing the strictest health restrictions ever imposed during a major sporting event.
The night began with a display of folkloric charm watched by carefully screened spectators against Covid – a distant cry from the eager crowd that filled the stadium for the grand four-hour Summer Olympics ceremony in 2008. The climax for many at this time was the appearance of 2008 tightly coordinated drummers chanting Confucius: “Friends have come from afar, and how happy we are.”
This time, a thousand performers jumped and twisted to the Chinese version of square dancing, a boisterous style of dancing popular among middle-aged people who congregate in parks across China. Zhang Yimou, director of the opening ceremony, as well as that of 2008, said he wanted to highlight China’s “ordinary humanity” this time.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach used his remarks at the opening ceremony to argue for the exclusion of international sports politics, a stance that is drawing increasing criticism from critics of the committee and of China.
Politics, in fact, has been an undercurrent of these Games from the start.
Mr. Xi took the opportunity to present China as an anchor of stability in a world in crisis. Being able to hold the Games on time, in the face of Covid, is proof enough of China’s reliability, he suggested.
Almost 14 years after the 2008 Games, a very different China – much richer, more powerful, but also more feared – put on a spectacle intended to reassure, as well as dazzle, its global audience. China, the message said, did not feel the same swaggering anxiety it once did to prove it had arrived.
“China no longer seeks to enter the international community. He’s an integrated senior member,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford, of the contrast between 2008 and today.
“There is also a much stronger message saying, ‘We are no longer supplicants trying to get into the room. We set the rules for what happens in the room,” he said.
Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders have portrayed the Games as a celebration of sport, accusing the United States of politicizing the event by waging a “diplomatic boycott” by Western leaders and senior officials.
Mr. Putin reiterated the accusation in remarks made on the eve of his visit. Chinese state media even claimed, without evidence, that the United States was plotting to disrupt the festivities with orchestrated protests by athletes or other attendees.
During their Friday meeting – the 38th between the two leaders – Mr Putin told his counterpart that Sino-Russian relations had “taken on a truly unprecedented character”.
“It’s an example of a dignified relationship that helps each of us develop while supporting each other’s development,” Putin said at the start of the talks, which also covered trade and security issues.
Even so, the limits of China’s support for Russia were exposed. The leaders’ statement does not specifically mention Ukraine, where China has its own economic and geopolitical interests.
Mr Putin was among 22 world leaders who attended the opening ceremony, a gathering that at least somewhat blunted the “diplomatic boycott” announced by Mr Biden and other Democratic leaders.
Among those present were the leaders of the five Central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most, but not all, are autocratic nations, underscoring growing divisions around the world based less on political ideology than on modes of governance and tolerance of basic political freedoms.
China’s record of rights abuses made the country’s choice to host these Games even more controversial than Beijing was for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Beijing became the first city to have the possibility of staging both summer and winter editions of the premier sporting event in 2015 – only after Norway, Sweden and other European countries pulled out, citing cost or lack of support public to host the Olympics.
Mr Xi’s broad crackdown on dissent, the crushing of democratic opposition in Hong Kong and the detention of hundreds of thousands of members of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region have fueled calls for a boycott of countries and corporate sponsors. In this context, Critics have denounced as hypocritical the choice of Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier who the Chinese say has Uyghur roots, to participate in the final and ritual lighting of the Olympic flame.
China’s economy, however, is now more than three times larger than it was in 2008, which means companies and even countries have not dared to risk losing market access.
Mr. Xi, who was vice president in 2008, has since coming to power in 2012 presided over a vigorous restoration of Communist Party power that he clearly hopes the Olympics will validate.
“If you look back at that time, in 2008, they were always ready to show the world that they spoke the same language, that they were part of an idea,” said Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who helped design Bird’s Nest Stadium. in an interview in Portugal. He left China in 2015 after his harsh criticism of the government. The stadium’s open and airy design was at odds with the direction China was taking, he said.
“But now,” he said, “the Chinese Communist Party is in a very different position. The whole tone has changed.
Holding the games could help put Mr. Xi in a flattering glow ahead of a Communist Party congress later this year that will be crucial to prolonging his era in power. Mr Xi looks increasingly confident of winning another five-year term as party leader at this congress, cementing his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
“It’s actually a decade-long celebration of Xi Jinping’s era in power. It’s a celebration of his power,” said Geremie R. Barmé, a fellow at the Center on US-American Relations. from the Asia Society, about the opening ceremony of the Games: “It’s like a National Day celebration, but under the guise of an international event.”
During the ceremony, thousands of athletes representing 90 countries and territories paraded around the stadium. So far, none have openly criticized the Chinese government, which officials have warned could face punishment.
“If athletes, upon leaving China and returning to their home country, choose to say anything about China, it could turn the narrative back to tensions,” said Heather Dichterassociate professor of sports history at De Montfort University in Great Britain.
“But,” she added, “it’s likely that during the two weeks of the Games themselves, the focus will be on the athletes and the many challenges they had to overcome.”
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow and David E. Sanger from Washington.