Chinese President Xi during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics Photograph:( AFP )
On February 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics open, saying, "Kaimu" (opening). Many carefully planted political references were sprinkled throughout the snow and ice themed ceremony, which repeated "One World, One Family."
Fireworks exploded all over Beijing and its infamous "Bird’s Nest" Stadium again as the 24th Winter Olympics kicked off on February 4, making Beijing the first city to host both a summer and Winter Olympics.
After a rapturous welcome was given to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the solemn ceremony directed by legendary Chinese film director Zhang Yimou was intricately planned. As the ceremony progressed, one couldn’t help but notice a political reference in each element.
Not to forget, even before the games began, the Chinese had already politicised the sporting event, something they had urged the west to not do. In the buildup to the ceremony, China’s chosen torchbearer for the games’ Torch Relay was a People's Liberation Army’s regimental commander who was involved in the deadly border skirmish with Indian troops on the countries’ Himalayan border. With this, while India joined the many other countries diplomatically boycotting the games, it did not deter China’s spirit.
On the February 4, the ceremony began at 8:00 pm local time with an overarching theme of "One World, One Family".
The elegantly choreographed presentation used a snowflake to carry forward this theme. It was a reference to renowned Chinese poet Li Bai’s description of snowflakes "as big as a mattress,", reiterating the idea that "they’re all different but together they form one family."
From the start to the end, this narrative of "One China" was pushed throughout the ceremony. Right from the start, representatives from all 56 ethnic groups in China, including the Uyghur, stood in unison as they passed an unfurled Chinese flag from hand to hand before it was hoisted.
What followed next was a treat for the eyes.
Aided by a dazzling series of LED lights, the ceremony began with a celebration of the Chinese New Year spring festival. While the computerised graphics played a major role in the ceremony, one couldn’t help but notice a lack of celebrity performers among the some 3000 who participated, contrary to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, which featured an array of artists, both Chinese and international, such as Sarah Brightman and Jackie Chan. So what changed?
Well, the simple answer is China. Or more specifically, its leadership.
Since the 2008 Olympics games, China has not only grown from a developing nation to full-fledged world power. it has also seen a shift in the country’s culture. Back in 2008, ahead of the Olympics, Beijing lifted its ban on YouTube and also loosened restrictions on foreign journalists as a sign of goodwill.
As a result, when Xi Jinping took power, observers expected China to continue to move toward greater liberties and eventually become more like Western democracies.
Boy, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fourteen years later, China portrays a radically different image. Under a strongman’s rule with an unending term, it has seen a rise in fervent nationalism with a crackdown on anyone who tries to distort this ideology.
So the decision to only use ordinary citizens, most of them teenagers, perfectly coincided with two things. First, was its crackdown on celebrities. Exactly a year ago, the China Association of Performing Arts, run by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, released a set of "professional norms that performers should consciously abide by" in order to "establish a good professional image for the performer,", or I might say for Xi. Since then, many have run afoul of the government.
And second, with most of the performers being teenagers, the idea was in line with Mr. Xi’s message at the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial last year, which emphasised the importance of youth to carry the nation (and, of course, Chinese communism) into the future.
As the ceremony progressed, Mr. Xi’s blatant propaganda attempt to portray "one China" as a place where everyone lives together peacefully and happily, only intensified. The communist regime's decision to pick an athlete with an Uyghur identity to help light the Olympic flame was a direct retort to the West's criticism, which has often accused China of committing genocide against the Muslim minority in the country’s Xinjiang region.
While Mr. Xi’s China seems to think it can control everything. There is one thing it cannot do- emotions.
As the parade of nations began, most of the athletes showed excitement as they walked across the stadium. The Jamaican contingent danced a little, the French contingent greeted all the performers, and even the contingent from the United States, which diplomatically boycotted the games, seemed thrilled when they entered the arena.
However, there was one tiny contingent that entered with no hint of excitement. And that belonged to "Chinese Taipei". The contingent, made up of three, merely walked across the stadium.
The team, who neither marched under the name of "Taiwan" nor with the traditional "Taiwanese flag", was set to boycott the ceremony, but had to attend it because they were "notified" by the International Olympic Committee that "it was required to cooperate in sending personnel to attend the opening and closing ceremonies."
The intention of skipping the ceremony was over the nation’s name. You see, the games are happening at a time when the relationship between China and Taiwan is at its lowest. In the past year, China has made repeated incursions in Taiwan’s airspace, with the latest one on January 24.
So, the self-governing island feared that China would use the games as a linguistic opportunity to assert its sovereignty over it.
The dispute centres around the name of the delegation in the local language. The Taiwanese delegation is officially referred to as "Zhonghua Taipei". Yet, many officials in mainland China often refer to the delegation as "Zhongguo Taipei". Zhongguo is the Chinese name for China; thus implying that Taiwan and its athletes represent China.
While the announcers of the ceremony stuck with the official name. Many Chinese viewers, watching the ceremony on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, however, claimed that they heard the announcers call the delegation "Zhongguo Taipei" or "Taipei, China".
This wasn’t all.
China has also been accused by South Korean leaders of "stealing" their culture after a female performer who represented one of the 56 ethnic groups in China during the ceremony was seen wearing a Hanbok, a traditional Korean outfit. The leaders of South Korea viewed this act of appropriating the tradition of a sovereign state as "rude".
All in all the opening ceremony was an interesting spectacle to watch. One can only eagerly wait to see if China once again pushes the Olympic motto of "Faster, higher, stronger - together" at the closing ceremony. For now, let the games begin!