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China Knew It Couldn’t Escape Politics at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. It Didn’t Try

4 minute read

In the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China has insisted on keeping politics and sports separate. When the U.S. and allies announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, China said the Olympics should not be used as “a stage for political posturing and manipulation.”

But as the Games formally kicked off on Friday, it was clear that Chinese officials were not planning to shy away from geopolitical issues as the global spotlight shifted to Beijing.

The messages—some subtle, some not—contrasted with the threads of international unity and togetherness that ran through director Zhang Yimou’s elegantly choreographed opening ceremony.

It began hours before the opening ceremony, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin—who flew to China for the Games. It was the first face-to-face meeting Xi has had with another world leader in nearly two years.

After the meeting, the two countries issued a statement opposing the expansion of NATO, which Putin has used as a major sticking point in his standoff with the West over Ukraine. Beijing joined Moscow in calling on the alliance to “abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches.”

Putin was one of the few world leaders who was in attendance at the opening ceremony—which was dramatically scaled back from the 2008 Summer Games extravaganza in the city that saw then-U.S. President George W. Bush attend.

Much of the criticism surrounding the Beijing Olympics has focused on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority ethnic groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. China has long dismissed criticism over this issue as an internal matter. It has denied evidence of systematic detention, surveillance, and population control efforts in Xinjiang, and angrily denounced Western allegations that it amounts to genocide.

The opening ceremony appeared meet this criticism head-on. At the beginning, it featured representatives of all 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, standing together in harmony and passing the Chinese flag across Beijing’s National Stadium.

Then, as part of the spectacular cauldron lighting ceremony, one of the two Chinese athletes who participated was cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang, who is Uyghur. That detail did not escape the notice of human rights activists, including at Human Rights Watch—which has been calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Winter Games over China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

The participation of Taiwanese athletes was also caught up in the glare of politics. Relations between the self-ruled island and Beijing—which considers Taiwan to be a rogue province that must be brought back under control—are at a low point. Chinese warplanes have repeatedly entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, including as recently as Jan. 23.

While Taiwanese sports officials initially said that they planned to skip the opening ceremony, the International Olympic Committee intervened, insisting that Taiwan’s Olympic delegation must participate.

As Taiwanese athletes entered the National Stadium for the “parade of nations” on Friday, they were announced under the name “Chinese Taipei”—a diplomatic workaround that is common to Taiwan’s appearance on the international stage.

However, for viewers on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, the delegation was announced using a phrase that translates as “China, Taipei”—which implies that the island is part of China. The next delegation was Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

“When the Taipei and Hong Kong delegations came out, the camera was given to the President. Not an inch of the motherland should be lost!” said one commenter on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

As the opening ceremony drew to a close, IOC President Thomas Bach emphasized the Games’ message of unity despite conflict. “This is the mission of the Olympic Games,” Bach said, “bringing us together in peaceful competition—always building bridges, never erecting walls.”

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