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Podcast

Asia Stream: The Olympics according to Xi

From lockdowns to boycotts, we investigate what the Winter Olympics reveal about China's global ambitions and its leader's aims

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, plus on our YouTube channel.

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This week, we report on President Xi Jinping and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The last time the Olympics were held there, the Games acted as China's coming-out party on the world stage, but these Games serve a very different purpose for the world's most populous country. What image is Xi trying to project? How do the Games tie into his larger political goals? And is he playing in the spirit of the Olympics, or playing to win?

In this episode, we speak to professor Kerry Brown of King's College and our chief Shanghai correspondent CK Tan about Xi, the Olympics, and China's "zero-COVID" strategy.

Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

Related to this episode:

On thin ice: Winter Olympics reveal cracks in China's zero-COVID policy, by Shin Watanabe

China warns Olympic athletes to keep quiet on politics, by Shin Watanabe and Shunsuke Tabeta

Beijing Winter Olympics reveal a very different China, by Richard McGregor

 

TRANSCRIPT:

(Theme Music in)

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST:

Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City.

Today's episode: The Olympics According to Xi.

Beijing has become the first city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The Summer Games were hosted in the Chinese capital in 2008. Though just 14 years ago, they seem a lifetime away. President George W. Bush attended the opening. Protests over Tibetan human rights made things complicated politically for Beijing, but didn't derail the competition. Indeed, the 2008 Games were China's coming out party on the global scene.

But these ongoing Winter Games are different. Underway is a diplomatic boycott, led by America. Human rights violations by Beijing against the Uyghur Muslims, the people of Hong Kong and others loom in the background, as does China's recent conflict with India, threats to Taiwan and security and trade tensions with the U.S. and Australia.

The Games, though going smoothly, are being conducted under tightly controlled conditions. Athletes have a gag order: they can't say anything against the Chinese state, or they will be punished. Social and mainstream media are severely restricted. And critically, the whole exercise is being conducted under a very strict - and very controversial - zero-COVID umbrella.

And more scandals fester: Though tennis isn't a part of these Games, the disappearance and reappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai remains a question for global sports bodies. Shuai made allegations last year against a senior Communist Party official for sexual misconduct, but has since mysteriously claimed otherwise. There are more routine hiccups, like doping scandals and low TV ratings. And despite the bubble, star athletes are testing positive for COVID.

But behind it all, looming larger than the games, the medals, the boycotts and the drama is one man: Xi Jinping. Since assuming office almost a decade ago, China's 68-year-old leader has amassed immense power and a formidable reputation. At home, he's crushed his political opponents, reined in big business and claims to have quashed corruption. But abroad, he's ditched China's decades-old policy of laying low. His "wolf warrior diplomacy" is muscular and confrontational. His trade tariff wars have destroyed competitors, and his Belt and Road Initiative has created a roster of indebted client states. Meanwhile, his military buildup has modernized China's armed forces like never before. The People's Liberation Army Navy is now the biggest in the world. The Chinese air force regularly breaches Taiwan's air defense zones, and its ground forces' incursions almost triggered an all-out ground war with India in 2020. In fact, Xi's cyber regime is so intrusive that it has not only prompted new legislation in global capitals against surveillance and Chinese tech companies, but also recently forced the FBI to warn Olympic athletes to leave their phones at home.

And yet, Xi Jinping is hosting the Olympics - the Games dedicated to driving athletes to be "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - faster, higher, stronger, maybe because that's what Xi wants to do.

But is Xi Jinping playing in the spirit of the Olympics, or playing to win?

That, and more, is coming up.

On your marks, and get set for a helluva show.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme Music out)

KHAN: Now, joining me to kick off the conversation are Asia Stream correspondents Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. Monica and Jack, thank you for being here.

HUNTER-HART: Thanks, Waj.

TRUITT: Happy to be here.

KHAN: Jack, let's start with you. Now going into these Games, much was made of the possibility of a total boycott from various countries over China's human rights violations against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, with the tangential issues of Hong Kong, etc., but of course that did not happen. Rather, there has been a so-called diplomatic boycott, what, exactly, is happening there?

TRUITT: So a diplomatic boycott is kind of like a boycott-lite. It was declared by the U.S. and nine other, mostly Western countries, and it means that their athletes are participating, but no officials or ministers were in attendance during the opening ceremony as they typically are.t

JEN PSAKI, U.S. PRESS SECRETARY: The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, given the PRC's ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.

KHAN: And did this display of diplomatic disapproval from Western countries create a big splash?

TRUITT: Well, it's always hard to gauge the effect of these sorts of things. Unsurprisingly Chinese state media claimed that America's efforts to thwart the Games were a failure. And though the lack of any official U.S. presence was notable, frankly there were enough major leaders attending that it certainly hasn't felt like the world has been on any sort of diplomatic strike against the Games.

HUNTER-HART: Yeah, 22 world leaders were there, including Vladimir Putin - who is currently in the news for Russia's military buildup on the Ukrainian border -- as well as Pakistan's Imran Khan, and leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

KHAN: Ah yes, right, the Democracy Forever Club.

TRUITT: The U.N. secretary general and the head of the World Health Organization were also in attendance.

KHAN: But does it matter, Jack, whether or not a president or prime minister or a king ends up attending the big show of the opening ceremony? I mean, they can always catch the fun and games on TV, right? Surely, you don't fly all the way to Beijing just to see the fireworks. So what's the higher purpose here?

TRUITT: If you're a foreign leader, the ability to visit Beijing means a great deal. Xi Jinping hasn't left mainland China since the pandemic began over two years ago, so being able to hold numerous face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders like this was a big opportunity for everyone involved. The meeting with Putin was the big headline, considering the crisis in Ukraine, but a number of neighboring Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, as well as Serbia and Poland, all met with Xi and agreed to new economic or trade deals. Facetime like this after two years of virtual diplomacy with one of the most powerful men in the world is invaluable, especially at a moment like this as many countries look to leverage China against the U.S. and vice-versa.

KHAN: OK that's interesting, so there's an abstract, geopolitical competition of sorts going in parallel to the games. But let's not lose sight of the friendlier competition taking place. Monica, talk to me about the Games themselves. How's China doing so far?

HUNTER-HART: Actually, China is excelling so far.

KHAN: "Actually"? What's with the qualification?

HUNTER-HART: Well, China has always performed really well in the Summer Games, but it has never been a winter-sports powerhouse. It's competed in every Winter Olympics since 1980, but didn't even win a gold medal until 2002.

KHAN: Oof! Yeah I guess that's right - when I think of China at the Olympics, I think of gymnastics, weight lifting, diving - sports like that.

HUNTER-HART: Exactly. But they've already won three gold medals as of Thursday. In the last Winter Games, by comparison, they only got one the entire time. Now of course, every country cares about winning medals, but China has perfected quite a system to make sure it does so. It scouts athletes as kids and sends them for full-time training at over 2,000 government schools around the country. It tends to focus on sports that are underfunded in the West to give it an edge.

KHAN: Huh. So what is China winning at this time?

HUNTER-HART: So far, it's won two golds in speedskating and one in freestyle skiing.

TRUITT: It should be said that China's still behind six other countries in gold medals overall. As of Thursday, leading the pack is Germany, with six golds so far, followed by Norway with five.

HUNTER-HART: True. But in the Olympics, according to Xi, both he and China are looking pretty impressive right now.

KHAN: Right, well, I'm sure he's happy that his Olympics machine is running smoothly. Any particularly notable moments in the Games so far?

HUNTER-HART: Perhaps the biggest story is still unfolding, but Russia's 15-year-old figure skating phenom Kamila Valieva has reportedly failed a drug test. There was also quite a stir around the Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu.

KHAN: Oh, of course I know him! "Yuzu," as they call him - he's huge these days! The whole world seems to be obsessed - though I heard China has a particularly intense bout of Yuzu fever.

HUNTER-HART: It's true, he has quite a fandom there. Yuzu won golds for figure skating in both of the last two Winter Games, but this time he made several mistakes on the ice - maybe most notably on Thursday, when he fell twice. He was attempting a comeback by landing a quadruple axel, which has never yet been done in competition.

ANNOUNCER 1: The quad axel-

(Sound of skating music and audience)

ANNOUNCER 2: Woah, he got so close. That was pretty rotated.

HUNTER-HART: It was an ambitious routine, and still an impressive finish to what might be the end of his Olympics career.

TRUITT: The new man on top is Nathan Chen for Team USA. He's a Chinese American athlete from Utah, and he's set a world record in his short program and nabbed the gold in the men's individual competition.

ANNOUNCER 3: The reaction from the crowd -

ANNOUNCER 4: Oh my goodness!

ANNOUNCER 3: That is the higher number that we have ever seen in a short program. Nearly 114. Wow.

ANNOUNCER 4: This must feel like a dream right now for Nathan Chen.

TRUITT: ...There are still 10 days to go before the Games end, so I'm sure we can expect many more upsets and memorable victories before then.

KHAN: Excellent, I'm looking forward to it. Well, thanks to you both, I appreciate your coming in.

TRUITT: Sure thing.

HUNTER-HART: Thanks, Waj.

KHAN: Thanks, Jack and Monica. Now let's dive deeper into the world of the man himself, Xi Jinping, and how these Olympics factor into his broader political agenda. Here to discuss that is professor Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat and director of the China Lau institute at King's College London and author of numerous books on the country, including one on Xi Jinping himself. Kerry, thank you for joining Asia Stream.

KERRY BROWN, GUEST: Thank you for inviting me.

KHAN: Alright, so professor, in 2018 you wrote a book titled "The World According to Xi." How has the world according to Xi changed in the four years since?

BROWN: I think the fundamental mission has stayed the same, which is to make China great again, to make it a hugely powerful and important country. Of course, the environment has totally changed because of the pandemic. I think China's relations with the outside world, particularly the U.S., have become much sharper. And I think it's a much tougher diplomatic kind of story that China is trying to tell now. Because it's got an audience in Europe and America which is more skeptical and probably more hostile to it.

KHAN: Right now, based on that, professor, I want to do a compare-and-contrast exercise of these ongoing Olympics with the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The Olympics are, of course, an opportunity for a country to showcase itself to the world and send a message about its culture, its values, its economic weight and might. What is China trying to convey about itself in these ongoing Winter Games, compared to what it was trying to convey with the 2008 Games?

BROWN: I think 2008 was a really epochal kind of event, because it was the first time China had hosted any major event like this. And I think there was still a little bit of naivete on both sides. I think for China, it felt it would gain the affection of the outside world. And it didn't really expect so much criticism to come its way that year because of uprising in Tibet, and other, you know, human rights issues.

NEWS ANCHOR: Pro-Tibet supporters scaled the Eiffel Tower, France's most famous landmark, despite huge security.

PROTESTER 1: Stop genocide in Tibet. We want complete independence. No Olympics in China until Tibet is free.

PROTESTER 2: We are here [...] against Chinese Olympic torch, which is a torch of shame, crime, blood.

BROWN: This time, it's much more knowledgeable about what the West thinks about it. And I think, you know, the diplomatic boycott of the Games, has created this sense that this is really a, an Olympics for China, for its domestic audience and for its alliance system.

KHAN: Right. Now, professor, you've said that the 2008 Games changed China, in part because it was forced to do some soul-searching about its image after about human rights abuses, et cetera. Are the 2022 Games expected to change China?

BROWN: I don't think it will -- I mean, it's confirmed some things, it's confirmed the divisions. It's confirmed the diplomatic coldness between particularly the United States and China. I don't think it's going to, you know, change China's tack. I think it's just a moment for China to try and say to itself and its alliances, you know: despite COVID, it's now standing up again, it's trying to function again, it's made it through, and, you know, business as normal will be resumed as soon as possible.

KHAN: Right, professor, so many items appear on the watch-out-for-China radar in the human rights cockpit, if you can call it that, but let's focus on the Uyghurs for a minute. China's treatment of this ethnic minority has caused many countries, including the U.S. to diplomatically boycott the Games. Does this boycott stand a chance of compelling China to change its behavior towards the Uyghurs?

BROWN: There is no evidence that China is going to change its mind on this. It's, it seems that many of the camps that had been established are no longer functioning. And so things have changed in Xinjiang, though, it's hard to tell, because it's very difficult to get access there. The diplomatic boycott is really more about the West feeling it needs to do something for itself. I don't know whether this kind of boycott is going to be effective, because of course, the sports people still win. And you know, the Games go on. In a sense, it's a victory for China that that's happened. And so I think that we have to think hard about, OK, the West can certainly be very angry about this issue and concerned about it. But that doesn't mean that what it's doing is effective.

KHAN: Right. So, professor, if the Olympics continue on this seemingly stable and successful trajectory, are they going to be considered a sort of coronation pre-party for President Xi before he seeks his third term this fall? Or could something backfire for Xi between now and October when he gets coronated, so to say?

BROWN: I mean, I think his coronation has been prepared for the last five years. I mean, this is, the Olympics is one step of many, which will feed into this narrative of Xi Jinping's leadership being good for China, strong, stable, all of these stories. What we've got to remember is that, if it doesn't work out for Xi, there isn't an alternative. There's no leaders around him at the moment who could easily step into his shoes without a lot of infighting and instability. The question really is, will we see in November, or October, leaders appointed at the same time who possibly -- five, you know, or more years down the line -- could be successors? Because he's 70 next year, you know, I mean, he's getting older, there's got to be some kind of succession plan. Formal positions on the whole have not been held by people older than their mid-70s or early 70s. And, you know, I mean, this is really kind of an institutional thing: Is it that the party is saying, in the future it wants, you know, leaders who could just go on and on and on? And I mean, that's probably not a great precedent, because although Xi Jinping is competent, clearly, politically very competent -- even though the West doesn't particularly like him, but I mean, they don't like him, probably because he's competent -- you know, it doesn't necessarily mean there's going to be a successor who is going to be similarly competent. Systems can produce extremely incompetent leaders, as we see in Europe all the time, in America. So, a competent autocrat is one thing; an incompetent autocrat is completely another thing.

KHAN: So, professor, it seems that these Games are only further solidifying the "pro-China" and "anti-China" camps that divide so many countries right now. I'm curious how you see the goals of the players who are hostile to China. For example, right now the Quad, the alliance between the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan, is having meetings down under. What is the anti-China camp aiming for right now?

BROWN: Well, this is part of a long, long story. And it's going to take many, many years to work out. I mean, the Americans have created a new set of alliances because of the Quad, as you say, also, because of AUKUS, you know, the Australia, U.K., United States treaty signed last September, creating this idea of the "Indo-Pacific." So it's like a kind of Asia without China in it, and good luck with that. Um, trying to work more closely with India. I mean, yeah, this is all very valuable and worth doing. But the point is that you are not able to easily avoid the very, very clear fact that China is a fifth of humanity, a fifth of global GDP, it is crucial for solving issues like climate change, pandemics, even though it's got a contentious issue, you know, around the current one, in the future it's likely China will be an ally in these issues. This is a complicated story. There are no easy boundaries.

KHAN: Right. And finally, professor, before I let you go: in 2015, you called Xi Jinping "China's CEO." So here we are in 2022, in the second week, now, almost the second week of the Olympic Games. Will your job title for him change? Is he now Emperor Xi, General Xi, El Commandante Xi, Big-Brother-Forever Xi, versus CEO?

BROWN: Well, I mean, I think he's in charge of an enormously economically productive enterprise. And, you know, in global politics, like in, you know, kind of politics domestically, you follow the money. And as long as China is a viable business, in terms of producing large amounts of growth, then you know, it's going to be a, a significant and powerful force. And I think that the world is going to have to make some sharp choices about how they deal with that, but it's not going to get easier. Xi Jinping, you know, the worst thing we can do is to kind of not take Xi Jinping seriously. He is a formidable politician. He may be formidably unlikable for some people, but he's a formidable politician. And unless we accept that, we're not going to be able to work very carefully, or well, in order to deal with some of the challenges he throws out.

KHAN: Professor Kerry Brown from King's College. Thank you, sir. I hope you're staying safe and dry in London.

BROWN: I am. Thank you very much.

KHAN: Now let's zoom in a bit more onto Xi's plans to make these Olympics a success. The cornerstone of his plans for the Games has been his "zero-COVID" policy, which he's had for years, but which has taken on even greater urgency for these Games as the world looks on. Here to talk to us about Xi's COVID tactics is CK Tan, our chief Shanghai correspondent. CK, thanks for being with us.

CK TAN, CORRESPONDENT: My pleasure.

KHAN: All right. Now CK, let's start off with the basics. Why is China's "zero-COVID" strategy often preceded or followed by an adjective: "controversial"?

TAN: Well, we have been living with COVID for the past two years, or more than two years now. And right from the beginning, the government has this policy -

NEWS 1: Simply put, the goal is to have no COVID cases at all. Now, that's led to some of the harshest travel restrictions and lockdowns anywhere.

NEWS 2: Thirteen million people in the city of Xi'an have been ordered to stay home.

NEWS 3: Four hundred buses carrying 9,000 people to isolation zones in the last days.

TAN: Each time when there is an outbreak in China, authorities will immediately go down to the affected areas, and they will lock down the affected areas or even the city. So in the case of, in the most recent case, was in Xi'an, which is in slightly western central China. It's a city of about the 13 million population. And why is it controversial, is perhaps I think it's the measures, or the way they lock down the whole city. When we say "locked down" in China here, it means that you have zero movement, you you are not allowed to leave your home. Unless for, you know, the essentials, the essentials, basically, you know, you know, each household is allowed to go out maybe perhaps twice a week to do their necessary shopping, grocery shopping. And that's it. And even during that, that short period of freedom, I mean, that the time that they leave the homes will be recorded. So, so this is one thing, and in the case of Xi'an, we could see how the the system, the lockdown system, broke down in a way that we heard that some residents were not allowed to go out and we also heard of an very unfortunate case of a eight-month pregnant lady who was about to go into the labor. But she wasn't admitted, or she wasn't allowed to be admitted into the hospital. And unfortunately, she lost her baby. And this really created a, you know, a big news on on the social media here in China.

KHAN: Yes, that is a devastatingly sad story. Those are tough measures by any standard. But coming back, CK, to the political dynamics of the "zero-COVID" strategy. So, in Urdu, there's a famous saying that you can't use a cannon to kill a mosquito. Of course, I don't want to call the pandemic a mosquito, or belittle the millions of people who've lost their lives, but considering that a city of millions is locked down by just a few cases, is this perhaps an instance of that saying, that the authorities are using a cannon to kill a mosquito?

TAN: Yeah, to a certain extent, I think that is true. And the, and strangely, for us, you know, living in China, the COVID measures appears to differ from city to city. So in a case of what I've just described in Xi'an, or even before there, in Wuhan, in other smaller cities, we have seen really, really tough measures. But compared to that, you know, we have outbreaks in Shanghai, we have outbreaks in big cities like Beijing, but we did not see, you know, the total lockdown of the entire city.

KHAN: Well speaking of the big cities, CK, you just got back from Beijing. And I know you weren't able to enter some of those Olympic facilities you were covering because access is so tightly controlled. But still, it would be great to get a sense from you about what the mood on the ground is like. From what I understand, the Olympics are supposed to be a very festive, active, and colorful event. So paint us a picture of Beijing during the Olympics and under this "zero-COVID" policy.

TAN: The mood in Beijing was unexpectedly quiet. And along the main street of Beijing, for about 4 to 5 km along the whole street, you would see policemen or special forces officers standing every 100 meters apart, 24 hours. So security was, was very, very strict. Although there were a lot of, you know, billboards, posters promoting the Olympics, but you hardly see any locals on the streets. I did not really feel that kind of, you know, cheery mood for the Olympics here.

KHAN: OK, so CK, before I let you go, is there some sort of connection between the way President Xi has conducted these Olympics and the way he is trying to maneuver himself into a position for a third term?

TAN: Yeah, I think President Xi has strategically used the Olympics to boost, one, number one, his image, his international diplomacy strategy. And number two, this could pave way for his, his bid for a third term in the national congress meeting in the fall. So domestically, you know, he could tell the the audience here that, you know, "Look, you know, how well we have conducted the Olympics, despite all the challenges of COVID and the pandemic. And look, you know, we, although we, there were some boycotts from the West, but look, you know, we have Vladimir Putin here and as well as some other leaders from the Central Asia, some parts of Asia and Latin America."

KHAN: Right, so he could use that to tell the Chinese people it was a huge success. Do you think they will buy that? Will these games increase Xi's popularity?

TAN: Yeah, I think we could probably say we could safely assume that you know, the Olympics will be a huge success. And it will be a huge boost to his image.

KHAN: Got it. CK Tan, our Shanghai correspondent. Thanks for being on Asia Stream, CK, and we must have you again. Stay safe.

TAN: Thank you, Waj.

KHAN: Thanks to CK Tan and Kerry Brown for joining us today. That's it for Asia Stream this week.

(Theme music in)

KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of the Olympics, China, and, of course, the rest of Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit asia.nikkei.com. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Waj Khan. Let's cross streams next week.

(Theme music out)

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