The 2022 Beijing Olympics will start shortly. It’s a world removed from the glitz, glamour and forced cheer of the 2008 Summer Games. Back in 2008, the Summer Games were Chinese debut in the same way that the 1964 Tokyo Games were Japan’s or the 1988 Seoul Games were South Korea’s. Of course, China in 2008 was not Japan in 1964 nor was it South Korea in 1988.
By 1964 Japan (with American oversight) had developed into something resembling a liberal democracy. In 1988, South Korea had made significant progress towards becoming a prosperous, liberal democracy. The Seoul Games put South Korea under the global magnifying glass and the country’s authoritarian leaders were not in any position to alienate and antagonise anyone. Beijing 2008 was China showing that it was a major global power. Heads of state from most major and many minor countries came to celebrate together. On the ground, it was not the most pleasant of games. Athletes and observers noted that for all its technical brilliance, the 2008 Beijing Games were tightly scripted and Chinese authorities ensured that nothing potentially embarrassing happened. Sydney 2000 was good-natured, cheeky and filled with lots of banter and larrikinism. The 2012 London games were brilliantly quirky, fun and cheerful. The 2008 games were overwhelming and full of subtle creepiness.
Of course, life went on. London was London, Sochi was, well… Russian?, Rio was… Brazilian? Pyeongchang was a success — South Korea had come a long way from 1988 and there was much hope. North Korea and South Korea met, North Korean and South Korean athletes played joint matches. The Japanese male figure skaters shut the insufferable American talking heads up and won gold and silver.
Japan did its best with a difficult situation in 2020/21. The second Tokyo Games, for all of their inherent challenges, went relatively smoothly. For all of its disappointments, the Japanese handled the situation commendably. The 2022 Games are… Well…
A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal had a picture of the official Chinese welcome to Yanqing, Beijing’s northern county. People of indeterminate sex wore biohazard suits and not just because of the proximity of a stinky tofu plant. Athletes were put under strict instructions to bring burner phones with them as the app that the Chinese authorities required them to install were so riddled with security flaws that espionage was the only possible explanation. Chinese authorities insisted on collecting the DNA of all arriving athletes. That the games would be held in a designated area of Beijing is not without precedent. The Japanese a mere few months ago did the same. The primary difference being that organised excursions were permitted. People who had received a negative test result were permitted to mingle with the Japanese public, to see Tokyo. The same will not be possible in Beijing. The athletes, subjected to even more intense screening by Chinese authorities which extends to anal swabs, will not be permitted to see the Chinese capital. They will not be permitted to intermingle with the Chinese public.
This year, only 35 countries have committed to having heads of state or senior officials partake in the opening ceremony. Only two major economies, South Korea and Russia, have chosen to follow tradition. Does it really matter, though? This is Xi Jinping’s sordid coronation. He’s neutralised all opposition. A mere two years after China brought the world to its knees, the world is sending its top athletes to have swabs stuck up their butts by Chinese officials. The diplomatic boycott is a joke. What does it matter if Boris prattles on about Peppa Pig in Kyiv rather than Beijing? What does it matter of Morrison, Trudeau, Jacinda and Emmanuel Mascholz give it a miss? The world bows to even the cruellest demands that China levies. As the world is only gradually moving away from the collective nervous breakdown it suffered, Xi Jinping is still basking in the afterglow of giving the headline speech at Davos.
The reality is that China got away with it. The reality is that Xi got away with it. The WHO, the ICO, the WEF, the UN… All dance to China’s tune. In 2019, the virus was still referred to as Wuhan Virus or Wuhan Coronavirus. Gradually, it shifted to Coronavirus and then Covid-19. Gradually, variants were no longer named after the places where they were first detected. They were given Greek letters. All, of course, except Xi. There were two things that could stand in Xi’s way. The Shanghai Faction could have used the outbreak to undermine the Beijing Faction, but doing so risked causing the entire CCP to be vulnerable. Obviously, that was not going to happen. Just in the last few weeks, those who would happily see Xi go the way of his political enemies have bowed to the perceived inevitable. Jiang Zemin wants to oust Xi Jinping, even a few months ago he would have been capable of posing a real threat. Now? His own survival is on the line. The other threat was Trump. For the first time since the 1960s an American president understood the threat that China’s long term goals posed. For the first time since Nixon, an American president was willing and able to exact a heavy price on China. He’s gone. In his place, the weakest, most compromised American president since the 1850s.
Of course, Xi will not last forever. He is nearly 70. The average Chinese male lives to about 75. The average Beijinger lives a good 5-10 years less. Xi managed to get his ducks in a row this time. But… He is highly likely to hold power for at least five more years. That will allow him to reshape the Party and the Chinese state machine in his image. Even if an opposing faction takes over, they will have far more power than they would have. All ushered in by officials in hazmat suits sticking swabs up athletes’ butts.