Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking to project China’s strength on the world stage at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Friday, but the global sporting competition will begin under the shadow of mounting geopolitical tensions.
This includes the determination by the U.S. and allies that China is carrying out a genocide in Xinjiang, systematically silencing free speech and stifling cooperation in the international battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite a boycott by diplomats from the U.S. and other countries, Xi will be flanked by dozens of Beijing’s international allies and partners, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also facing Western condemnation over his military posturing against Ukraine.
Here are five things to watch for – apart from the athletes – during the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Diplomatic boycotts highlight geopolitical divisions
The Biden administration has stressed that it did not coordinate with other countries in its decision to carry out a diplomatic boycott, imposed in opposition to Beijing’s internment of nearly one million Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, which the administration says is part of a campaign of genocide.
That has led to some public divisions between allies and partners who have joined the U.S. in keeping their diplomats home, and those who have not.
Germany’s chancellor announced on Wednesday that he would not attend the games, but France has made a point that it views a diplomatic boycott as wrongful politicization of sport.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is also expected at the opening ceremony of the games, reportedly despite a request from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. to stay home, in what he said is an effort to promote peace through sports.
Chinese media last week released a list of more than 30 heads of state, government and royal families that are attending the opening ceremony in Beijing, a roster that sheds light on Beijing’s closest allies and sphere of influence in Central Asia.
India’s foreign ministry on Thursday announced it would not send representatives to the games, opposing Beijing’s decision to have as a torch bearer a Chinese military official who was involved in a deadly border clash against the Indian army.
Despite the absence of U.S. officials, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said that Biden will “absolutely” be watching the games.
Xi welcomes ‘best friend’ Putin amid Ukraine standoff
Putin’s attendance at the Olympics is viewed as a strong signal of Moscow and Beijing’s deepening relationship and comes amid the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, where 100,000 Russian troops are massed on the border.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had earlier raised the possibility that Putin would delay any action against Ukraine until after the Olympics, to keep the spotlight on Xi.
Xi has described Putin as his “best friend,” and the Olympics are a key opportunity for the controversial leaders to sit down face-to-face.
“They both sit at the top of, increasingly, personalized-authoritarian systems. They are kindred spirits in that respect,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
China joined Russia at the United Nations Security Council last week in opposing an open session meeting called by the U.S. to discuss Moscow’s military buildup and provocations against Ukraine.
Stokes said that while he doesn’t think China is encouraging Russia to take military action, Moscow and Beijing both see themselves and the survival of their political regimes as coming under attack.
“China wants to make the world safer for authoritarianism,” Stokes said.
Athletes safety a major concern following silencing of Peng Shuai
The Chinese government’s apparent silencing in November of tennis champion Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault against a former, top Communist Party official drew international scrutiny as a stark example of its ruthlessness in stifling dissent.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) head Thomas Bach, who has come under criticism as enabling Beijing’s repression, is expected to meet with Peng at the games.
Peng’s case has added to concerns among lawmakers and human rights activists that visiting athletes face the risk of running afoul of China’s arbitrary rules targeting freedom of expression.
Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s International Relations Department, said that athletes are responsible for adhering to Olympic rules barring political speech and that any violations of this, and “especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), issued a blunt warning on Thursday during a hearing in Congress on China’s human rights abuses.
“I would say to our athletes, you’re there to compete, do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government because they are ruthless,” she said.
Cybersecurity and surveillance of athletes another major concern
The privacy of athletes while they are in China has been top of mind for the U.S. government. The FBI advised athletes to leave their personal phones in the U.S. and bring burner phones to the Olympics.
The FBI cited the possibility of “malicious cyber activities” in its advisory and said, while it’s not currently aware of a specific cyber threat against the Olympics, athletes should be “vigilant and maintain best practices in their network and digital environments.”
Possible cyberattacks during the Olympics, according to the FBI, could include ransomware, malware, and data theft. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which did not have a full slate of spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was reportedly the target of more than 450 million cyberattacks, all of which were unsuccessful.
FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke to the cyber threats in China this week, saying that more than 2,000 active FBI investigations are focused on the Chinese government “trying to steal our information or technology.”
“There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China,” Wray said during remarks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.
Human rights activists seek to highlight abuses, despite quarantined games
The COVID-19 pandemic has largely sealed off the Beijing Games from spectators generally, but also severely limited the number of journalists on the ground to cover the competition and issues related to China’s place in the world.
Criticisms of China’s human rights abuses run the gamut from the genocide in Xinjiang; repression of Tibetans’ culture, religion and language; its crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong; jailing of journalists, activists, dissidents; arbitrary detention of foreigners and intimidation of the self-governed, democratic-island of Taiwan.
“Over the next two weeks it’s our urgent moral duty to shine a bright light on the many human rights violations being perpetrated by the host nation,” Pelosi said during the hearing on Thursday. “It’s not about the Chinese people, it’s about the People’s Republic of China and the repressive government that has been in power.”
The IOC has become a lightning rod for criticism since awarding Beijing the tender for the games in 2015, following top European countries bowing out of the contest over domestic opposition to hosting the games and concerns over cost.
Hundreds of Tibetan protesters descended on the headquarters of the IOC in Switzerland on Thursday, The Associated Press reported, waving placards reading “Save Tibet” and “No More Bloody Gains,” a sign that any dissent is likely to occur outside China.