The Olympics Reveal a Lot About China
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has accomplished several feats with remarkable zeal and success. It has sparked a historic economic boom in the aftermath of a disastrous Marxist-Leninist revolution; launched an expansive and costly project to expand China's global influence through its Belt and Road Initiative; trained and equipped a world-class military; and organized a modern technocracy that makes George Orwell's 1984 look like a kindergarten primer. And, as the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony demonstrated last Friday, the CCP can put on a fantastic show.
This year's event was more muted and understated than the 2008 ceremony, but as beautifully done. The performance featured phalanxes of singing, laughing, and waving youngsters dressed in costumes reminiscent of those worn by children during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s as "Chairman Mao's tiny sunflowers." The People's Liberation Army's stern-faced troops marched China's national flag to its formal hoisting. Numerous coordinated mass performances comprised phalanxes of females waving pom-poms and boys holding lightsabers, who combined to create stunning electronic flowers in the darkness.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was presiding over the festivities from afar. He blessed the ritual with a turgid benediction, dressed in a black COVID-19 mask and a full-length blue parka that gave him the appearance of being inflated. Xi's efforts to develop a personality cult comparable to Mao Zedong's are continuously undermined by his lack of charisma: as academic Geremie Barmé put it, "the new Xi Jinping cult is all cult and no personality." Perhaps this is why Xi is so reliant on pomp, ceremony, and ritual to create an impact.
The CCP picked the theme "one planet, one family" for the opening ceremony. This struck a slightly dissonant tone, given an elite consensus has developed in many places, including China, that globalization is slowing as nations "decouple." And, despite Xi's efforts to persuade the world that China is a peaceful and harmonious country, there are several indications of his more militaristic instincts from Taiwan to the Indian border, Hong Kong to Xinjiang.
LARGE SHOW, SMALL AUDIENCE
Beijing is the only city to have held both the summer and winter Olympics, and Friday's spectacular, like the 2008 summer games' opening ceremony, took place at the beautiful National Stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest. As was the case in 2008, film director Zhang Yimou (whom the party had barred from winning an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994) was reinstated as creative director. He has developed his choreography abilities in the interim years by choreographing large, brassy outdoor theatrical plays at important tourist locations around the country. Cai Guo-Qiang, the artist, also returned as grand master of fireworks. The CCP's goal with a meticulously staged spectacle was to demonstrate to the world that Xi had restored China's glory through a process of rebirth and atonement.
The ceremony also acted as a covert rebuke to the CCP's expanding number of critics and opponents. Beijing compelled Taiwan to march under the designation "Chinese Taipei" and directly after Hong Kong in the parade of multinational teams, as though the island were next in line for annexation. The ceremony then finished with a female Uyghur athlete teaming up with a male Han Chinese counterpart to ignite the Olympic torch, in response to international censure of China's persecution of Uyghurs in the westernmost region of Xinjiang. The flame was ignited in the center of a large snowflake, which Zhang characterized elegiacally as "Different snowflakes come to Beijing and coalesce into a big snowflake representing humanity." The selection of a Uyghur was a direct rebuttal to those who denounced this year's Winter Olympics as "genocide games." This criticism did not deter corporate sponsors from contributing financial support to the games, including Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Visa. They have spoken little about the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs jailed in special "re-education facilities" in Xinjiang or about Beijing's abrogation of Hong Kong's right to a "high degree of autonomy" in order to prevent reprisal from Beijing.
Watching the ceremony, it was hard not to wonder: Who was the CCP trying to impress?
Although the Bird's Nest seats 88,000 people, it was only half full on the night of the opening ceremony. Due to the fact that China's domestic vaccinations are generally useless against the highly contagious Omicron strain of COVID-19, and the CCP has resolutely refused to import vaccines, the country has maintained a "zero-COVID" policy. As a result, the event was limited to a chosen audience of 15,000 people, thus turning the stadium to a large TV studio sound stage, a condition that suited the party's political purposes admirably. The officials of a self-proclaimed People's Republic were undoubtedly delighted that such a contentious and high-profile event would not include an excessive number of "the people"—particularly untrustworthy foreign nationals prone to spontaneous demonstrations.
Foreign leaders in attendance included Imran Khan, Pakistan's prime minister; Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's president; Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan's president, who was recently almost defenestrated. Naturally, Russian President Vladimir Putin was also there, and he chatted with Xi during a meeting that both leaders think would "inject greater life into China-Russia ties," according to a report by Chinese official media. Finally, as if he'd stumbled into the wrong party, there came United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who has distinguished himself by remaining silent on China's human rights atrocities.
FEAR AND LOVE
While watching the event, one couldn't help but wonder: Who was the CCP attempting to impress? Do Chinese officials believe they can win foreign countries by such propaganda, despite their deliberate (and effective) alienation of country after country through intimidation, saber-rattling, and punitive trade policies? And why do Chinese officials have such an enduring sensitivity to criticism now that they have so much to be proud of? In short, how can Beijing pursue punishing "wolf warrior diplomacy" overseas while hoping to sweeten the deal with these same nations through well-produced but sugary propaganda displays?
To begin, one must bear in mind that this event was designed for a Chinese audience as well as for foreigners. After all, the source of China's new nationalism is pride in "the Motherland's" expanding strength, particularly in international rivalry, whether in diplomacy, trade, or sports.
The CCP aimed to show the world that Xi has restored China’s greatness.
However, the CCP has always been obsessed with impressing—and, if possible, aweing—foreigners. China's outstanding list of developmental achievements has never been sufficient to satiate party officials' need to acquire the recognition and respect of the very nations that China concurrently considers as rivals due to their censoriousness. This is a long-standing paradox that no amount of "engagement," an embracing policy endorsed by nine United States presidential administrations, can overcome.
Engagement was never able to completely alleviate the party's desire to be seen as an equal, if not a superior, by other big nations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the CCP is rejected or repudiated by the US or "the West," one of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' favorite tropes is to complain that arrogant outsiders have "wounded the Chinese people's feelings"—a nearly comically melodramatic way for a modern great power to explain its disaffection. The issue is this: Because the CCP continues to hold tenaciously to its outdated Stalinist conceits, despite its triumphs, it will never be able to totally exonerate itself of democratic governments' political disapproval. Mao would have referred to this as a "antagonistic contradiction," which could never be addressed amicably.
Xi inherited an intractable conundrum: he wants the outside world to embrace his dynamic version of Chinese dictatorship while still fearing and respecting it. His opening ceremony for the Olympics was all about peace and love. However, on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang — as well as in his standoffs with Australia, Canada, India, and the US — he is combative and uncompromising, fearful that compromise would be interpreted as weakness. As a result of this unfortunate outcome, China's dream of restoring riches and power after a century and a half of struggle and failure is now jeopardized by a leader unwilling to abandon an old Leninist narrative of grievance and antagonism.