(THE HILL) – Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to project China’s strength onto the world stage at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Friday, but global sports competition will begin under the shadow of growing geopolitical tensions.
This includes the determination of the United States and its allies that China is committing 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 United States and other countries, Xi will be accompanied by dozens of Beijing’s international allies and partners, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also faces Western condemnation for his military posture. against Ukraine.
Here are five things to watch out for — aside from the athletes — during the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Diplomatic boycotts highlight geopolitical divisions
The Biden administration has pointed out that it failed to coordinate with other countries in its decision to carry out a diplomatic boycott, imposed in opposition to Beijing’s internment of nearly a million Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which the administration says is part of a campaign of genocide.
This has led to public divisions between allies and partners who have joined the United States to keep their diplomats at home, and those who have not.
The German Chancellor announced on Wednesday that he would not attend the games, but France argued that it viewed a diplomatic boycott as an undue politicization of the sport.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is also expected at the opening ceremony of the games, reportedly despite a request from the US ambassador to the UN to stay at home, in what he described as a effort to promote peace through sport.
Chinese media last week published a list of more than 30 heads of state, government and royal families attending the opening ceremony in Beijing, a list that sheds light on Beijing’s closest allies and its sphere of influence in Central Asia.
India’s Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that it would not send representatives to the games, objecting to Beijing’s decision to have 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 said Wednesday that Biden would “absolutely” watch the games.
Xi welcomes ‘best friend’ Putin amid Ukraine standoff
Putin’s presence at the Olympics is seen as a strong signal of deepening relations between Moscow and Beijing and comes amid the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, where 100,000 Russian troops are massed at the frontier.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman previously raised the possibility that Putin would delay any action against Ukraine until after the Olympics, in order to keep the spotlight on Xi.
Xi has described Putin as his “best friend” and the Olympics are a key opportunity for controversial leaders to sit face to face.
“They both sit atop increasingly personalized authoritarian systems. They are kindred spirits in that regard,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow with 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 a public meeting called by the United States to discuss Moscow’s military buildup and provocations against Ukraine.
Stokes said 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 under attack.
“China wants to make the world safer for authoritarianism,” Stokes said.
Athlete safety a top concern after Peng Shuai’s silence
The Chinese government’s apparent silence in November of tennis champion Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations against a former senior Communist Party official has drawn international attention as a stark example of its ruthlessness in suppressing dissent.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who has been criticized for enabling Beijing’s crackdown, is expected to meet Peng at the games.
Peng’s case added to concerns among lawmakers and human rights activists that visiting athletes risk breaching China’s arbitrary rules targeting free speech.
Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s international relations department, said athletes are responsible for adhering to Olympic rules prohibiting political speech and any violation thereof, and “especially against Chinese laws and regulations , is also liable to certain penalties”.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) issued a stark warning Thursday during a congressional hearing on human rights abuses in China.
“I would say to our athletes, you are here to compete, don’t risk incurring the wrath of the Chinese government because they are ruthless,” she said.
Cybersecurity and athlete monitoring another major concern
Athletes’ privacy while in China is a priority for the US government. The FBI has advised athletes to leave their personal phones in the United States and bring cell phones to the Olympics.
The FBI raised the possibility of “malicious cyber activity” in its advisory and said that while it is not currently aware of a specific cyber threat to the Olympics, athletes should be “vigilant and maintain best practices in their network and digital environments”.
According to the FBI, possible cyberattacks during the Olympics could include ransomware, malware, and data theft. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which did not have a full roster of spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was reportedly the target of more than 450 million cyberattacks, all of which failed.
FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke about cyber threats in China this week, saying more than 2,000 active FBI investigations focus on the Chinese government “attempting to steal our information or our technology.”
“There is simply no country that poses a greater threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China,” Wray said during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. , in California.
Rights activists seek to shine a light on abuse, despite games in quarantine
The COVID-19 pandemic has largely isolated the Beijing Games from general spectators, but has 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 human rights abuses in China range from the genocide in Xinjiang; repression of Tibetan culture, religion and language; its crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong; imprisonment of journalists, activists, dissidents; arbitrary detention of foreigners and intimidation of the autonomous and democratic island of Taiwan.
“Over the next two weeks, it is our urgent moral duty to bring to light the numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by the host country,” Pelosi said during Thursday’s hearing. “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 Beijing was awarded the games tender in 2015, after major European countries pulled out of the competition due to domestic opposition to the organization games and cost concerns.
Hundreds of Tibetan protesters descended on the IOC headquarters in Switzerland on Thursday, the Associated Press reported, holding signs reading “Save Tibet” and “No More Bloody Gains”, a sign that any dissent is likely to occur outside of China.
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