Beijing Winter Olympics were a troubling reminder of 1936 Games

The success of the Beijing Winter Olympics is another feather in Xi’s cap. Like Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, Xi’s Games succeeded after an international boycott campaign collapsed. Will an emboldened Xi now embark on fresh repression and expansionism?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Xi Jinping on the screen during the opening ceremony at the Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4: murky politics can lurk beneath the surface.   © Getty Images

While the Olympic movement seeks to promote “a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play,” murky politics can lurk beneath the surface.

Powerful autocracies serving as hosts have a history of using the Olympics to project themselves as friendly, peace-loving nations so as to advance their geopolitical objectives and cloak their human rights abuses. Yet their actions often speak for themselves.

As the 24th Winter Olympics in Beijing were opening, China warned foreign athletes not to “violate the Olympic spirit” by speaking out on political issues. Yet it has defended its own gross violation of the Olympic spirit by feting as an Olympic torchbearer and national hero a Chinese military officer who led an ambush attack in the Himalayas that killed 20 unarmed Indian soldiers in June 2020.

The lionizing of such a military commander is a telling commentary on the tactics and values of the Chinese Communist Party and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army. The action also showed that China mixes politics and sports better than any other country.

Since China’s boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the CCP has treated sports as politics by other means. It has engaged in bullying tactics against, among others, America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) and England’s Premier League. And it has used threats of withdrawing lucrative sports contracts, broadcast deals and sponsorship opportunities to buy silence regarding its human rights record.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, dubbed the “Genocide Games” by several international human rights organizations, are probably the most divisive games since the Berlin Summer Olympics. The 1936 Games helped strengthen the hands of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, emboldening his expansionism. The 2022 Games follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own expansionism, extending from the South China Sea and Hong Kong, to the Himalayas.

In fact, Xi has taken a page out of the 1936 Olympics playbook: Just as Hitler sought to camouflage his segregation and persecution of Jews by permitting one Jewish athlete — fencing champion Helene Mayer — to join the German team, Xi has tried to whitewash his atrocities in Xinjiang by presenting a Uighur skier as the face of the 2022 Games.

Mayer’s inclusion in the German team not only helped end international calls for a boycott of the Games but also allowed Hitler to project the image of a peace-loving statesman. Xi, for his part, opened the 2022 Games with peace doves and an obscure female Uighur skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as the star of the opening ceremony. Chinese state media quickly claimed Yilamujiang had “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang.”

There are some other troubling parallels between the two games. Before the 1936 Games, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp had been established and Hitler’s army had marched into the demilitarized Rhineland. The 2022 Games have followed Xi’s expansionism across Asia and what two successive U.S. administrations have labeled “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where more than a million detainees languish in a Muslim gulag.

Since 2015, when Beijing defeated Almaty, Kazakhstan, to win the bid to host the 2022 Games, China has, among other things, established forward military bases on a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang gulag, militarized the Himalayan borderlands and encroached on Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese territories, weaponized debt and gobbled up Hong Kong.

And at home, Xi has established a globally unparalleled techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security has overtaken the country’s massive military budget. A repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, is fostering a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing.

With “Xi Jinping Thought” enshrined in the national constitution and turned into the central doctrine guiding the CCP, China’s destiny is now in the hands of one party, one leader and one ideology.

More broadly, just as a long debate has raged over how Western powers had played into Hitler’s hands by participating in the 1936 Games, the failed boycott of the 2022 Games is likely to be a subject of intense discussion in future years.

To be sure, a number of Western countries, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Kosovo, Lithuania and the U.S., refused to send officials to Beijing for the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies in protest against China’s human rights abuses.

India, too, at the last minute decided not to grace the ceremonies with its official presence. But such diplomatic boycotts have essentially been symbolic as athletes from those countries are participating fully in the Games, including in the opening and closing ceremonies.

Xi’s Olympic Games are being held under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year. China’s refusal to cooperate with international efforts to determine the origin of the virus first detected in the city of Wuhan — despite the pandemic’s devastating global impact — underlines the international costs of Xi’s rule.

The U.S., as the world’s leading sports nation and preeminent power, could have undercut the credibility of the Winter Games by deciding not to send its athletes and by leading a wider international boycott. But, as in 1936, it decided to allow its athletes to participate.

Meanwhile, by highlighting that Wall Street remains China’s powerful ally, some of America’s biggest corporations — from Coca-Cola and Visa to Intel and Proctor & Gamble — are underwriting the global spectacle. Very vocal when it comes to political rights at home, such sponsors have kept silent on Xinjiang, the repression in Tibet and Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong.

Three years after the 1936 Games, World War II began. Will the 2022 Games also come back to haunt the world? Buoyed by the success of the Games, Xi could embark on fresh repression and expansionism.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”