In Beijing, the Olympic Show and the Global Power Games

BEIJING – Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, opened the Olympic Games on Friday with the aim of celebrating his country’s increasingly secure global status while defiantly siding with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, in a competition increasingly ideological with the United States and its allies.

As President Biden and other Democratic leaders avoided the opening ceremony for human rights violations in China, Mr. Xi called back his sympathetic guest group. Mr. Putin, another strongman leader who stiffens against US demands, appeared with him earlier in a calculated show of solidarity as Moscow’s tensions with Ukraine could escalate into war.

The meeting with Putin, with the opening ceremony, was a choreographic display of China’s changing place in the world, eager to conquer countries wary of its growing power, but increasingly impatient and contemptuous of Western censorship.

He also highlighted the determination of China and Russia to present a united front against the West in general and the United States in particular, exactly the result that President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger, they were trying to avoid with their opening up to China in 1971.

In a joint statement after the two leaders met, they said their friendship “knows no bounds” and China sided with Russia on one of its key security demands: an end to NATO’s expansion to east and closer to the borders of Russia.

The two leaders called on the United States to abandon plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia and denounced what they see as American interference in their internal affairs by fomenting “color revolutions” calling for greater democracy.

“Russia and China oppose attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” they said in the 5,300-word statement, which illustrated the growing rift between democracies and autocracies.

In a message addressed directly to the United States, the two leaders promised “to counter the interference of external forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose the color revolutions and increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas”.

The statement made no mention of mutual support for Russia’s tensions over Ukraine and China with Taiwan, signaling the limits of the growing partnership.

“This statement reflects the nature of the relationship with China,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s getting deeper, more and more directed at the United States, but it’s not an alliance in which both sides support each other on everything.”

After the harsh geopolitics of his talks with Putin, Mr. Xi presided over the opening show of the Winter Games in the national “Bird’s Nest” stadium. The ceremony, which lasted more than two hours on a clear, frosty night, was filled with images of China as a friendly and open host, despite the imposition of the strictest health restrictions ever seen in a major sporting event.

The night began with a display of popular charm watched by closely shielded spectators against Covid – a distant cry from the passionate crowd that filled the stadium for the grand four-hour ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The highlight for many was that. time was the appearance of 2008 closely coordinated drummers singing Confucius: “Friends have come from afar and how happy we are.”

This time, a thousand performers jumped and twisted to the Chinese version of square dance, a boisterous dance style popular with middle-aged people who congregate in parks across China. Zhang Yimou, the director of the opening ceremony, as well as the 2008 inauguration, said that this time he wanted to highlight China’s “normal humanity”.

International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach used his remarks at the opening ceremony to appeal to keep politics out of international sports, a stance that has drawn mounting criticism from the committee’s and China’s detractors.

Politics, in fact, has been an undercurrent of these Games from the very beginning.

Mr. Xi took the opportunity to present China as an anchor of stability in a world in crisis. Being able to hold the Games on schedule, in front of Covid, is sufficient proof of China’s reliability, he suggested.

Almost 14 years after the 2008 Games, a very different China – much richer, more powerful, but also more feared – staged a show designed to reassure, as well as dazzle, its global audience. China, it was said, did not feel the same swashbuckling anxiety as it once did to prove she had arrived.

“China is no longer seeking entry into the international community. He is an incorporated senior member, “said Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, of the contrast between 2008 and today.

“There is also a much stronger message that says, ‘We are no longer pleaders trying to enter the room. We are setting the rules of what happens in the room, ‘”she said.

Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders described the Games as a celebration of sport, accusing the United States of politicizing the event by leading a “diplomatic boycott” by Western leaders and senior officials.

Mr. Putin reiterated the allegation in comments on the eve of his visit. Chinese state media even claimed, without evidence, that the United States was plotting to disrupt the festivities with orchestrated protests by athletes or other attendees.

In their meeting on Friday – the 38th between the two as leaders – Putin told his counterpart that relations between China and Russia had “taken on a truly unprecedented character.”

“It is an example of a dignified relationship that helps each of us to develop while supporting the development of the other”, said Putin at the beginning of the talks which also covered trade and security issues.

Even so, the limits of China’s support for Russia were on display. The leaders’ statement did not specifically mention Ukraine, where China has its own economic and geopolitical interests.

Mr. Putin was among 22 world leaders who attended the opening ceremony, a meeting that blunted at least in part the “diplomatic boycott” announced by Biden and other Democratic leaders.

Among those present were the leaders of the five Central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most, though not all, are autocratic nations, underlining the growing divisions in the world based less on political ideology than on modes of governance and tolerance for basic political freedoms.

China’s record of rights violations made the country’s choice as a venue for these Games even more controversial than Beijing was for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Beijing became the first city to be given the opportunity to host both ‘summer and winter editions of the main sporting event of 2015 – only after Norway, Sweden and other European countries dropped out, citing the costs or lack of public support to host the Olympics.

Mr. Xi’s extensive crackdown on dissent, the crackdown on the democratic opposition in Hong Kong, and the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur ethnic minority members in the Xinjiang region have fueled calls for a boycott from countries and sponsors. business.

The Chinese economy, however, is now more than three times larger than it was in 2008, which means companies and even countries haven’t dared risk losing market access.

Mr. Xi, who served as Vice President in 2008, since taking power in 2012 has presided over a vigorous restoration of Communist Party power that he clearly hopes the Olympics will validate.

“If you look back at that time, in 2008, they were still willing to show the world that they speak the same language, that they were part of an idea,” said Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who helped design the Bird’s stadium. Nest in an interview from Portugal. He left China in 2015 after his outspoken criticism of the government. The open and airy design of the stadium contrasted with the direction China was taking, he said.

“But now,” he said, “the Chinese Communist Party is in a very different position. The whole tone has changed. “

Holding the games could help put Mr. Xi in a flattering glow ahead of a Communist Party conference later this year, which will be crucial in extending his era in power. Mr. Xi seems increasingly confident of winning another five-year term as party leader at that congress, confirming his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

“This is indeed a celebration of the decade of Xi Jinping’s era in power. It’s a celebration of his power, “said Geremie R. Barmé, a member of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relation, at the opening ceremony of the Games.” It’s like a celebration of National Day, but done in the guise of an international event “.

During the ceremony, thousands of athletes representing 90 countries and territories marched around the stadium. So far, no one has openly criticized the Chinese government, something officials have warned could be punished.

“If any athlete, after leaving China and returning to their home countries, chooses to say something about China, however, it could turn the narrative back into tension,” said Heather Dichter, associate professor of sports history at the De Montfort University in Great Britain.

“But”, he added, “it is likely that for the two weeks of the Games themselves, the focus will be on the athletes and the many challenges they have had to overcome.”

Anton Troianovski contributed reports from Moscow and David E. Sanger from Washington.