As the Olympics open, China seeks the limelight but warns against criticism
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Winter Olympics start on Friday. Beijing wants this to be a massive PR hit for them, but will the Games end up drawing more attention to the political and human rights issues China does not want to talk about? NPR's Greg Myre reports.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremony and mingled with the athletes.
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GEORGE W. BUSH: I happen to believe not going to the opening ceremony for the Games would be an affront to the Chinese people.
MYRE: Times have changed. President Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, said U.S. officials are boycotting the Winter Olympics because China's treatment of the weaker minority amounts to...
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JEN PSAKI: Ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.
MYRE: This diplomatic boycott is symbolic. The athletes are still competing. But China faces a tough balancing act. It seeks the global spotlight to display its remarkable rise but is hypersensitive to criticism of human rights abuses at home and growing friction with countries abroad. Michael Beckley is a China expert at Tufts University. He says China still believes it can use the Games for some muscle-flexing.
MICHAEL BECKLEY: It's a way for them to try to show off how their government can deal with something like COVID. Even though it may not have the pomp and circumstance of 2008, it's a way to say, look, we know how to deal effectively with something like a pandemic.
MYRE: Olympic athletes are encountering Chinese officials in hazmat suits conducting COVID tests. Competitors are restricted to a secure bubble throughout the Games, and the FBI has warned U.S. athletes to leave their phones at home and take only disposable burner phones to protect sensitive information against hacking. Anja Manuel is with the Aspen Strategy Group. She says some will be impressed by China's level of control.
ANJA MANUEL: People do sometimes have authoritarian envy. They build beautiful roads and airports. And when they make a decision, it gets implemented pretty quickly.
MYRE: That's fine, she adds, until problems arise, and there's no way to change leaders.
MANUEL: I think authoritarian envy only lasts for so long before people really understand.
MYRE: In the past, China's foreign policy was to lay low. That's changed dramatically under President Xi Jinping. Again, Michael Beckley.
BECKLEY: China has thrown off any semblance of restraint in its foreign policy. I mean, what they call wolf warrior diplomacy has replaced friendship diplomacy. Xi Jinping has said anyone that tries to control China is going to have their heads bashed bloody against a great wall of steel.
MYRE: China now faces rocky relations on multiple fronts. There was a border skirmish with India, a heated spat with Australia when it signed a big submarine deal with the U.S. Tensions over Taiwan keep rising. MIT Professor Yasheng Huang says the Chinese leadership is taking a big risk with its aggressive foreign policy. He says the country shouldn't...
YASHENG HUANG: Brag about your own technological power without realizing that it's actually dependent on good working relationship with the United States, with Japan, with South Korea, with the West.
MYRE: As the Games begin, Anja Manuel says the moment has probably passed for the country to integrate smoothly into the existing international system.
MANUEL: That's become much harder under Xi Jinping. Is this policy of real aggression from China sustainable? I don't think so. So at some point there's going to have to be a course correction.
MYRE: But don't expect that to happen at the Olympics. Greg Myre, NPR News.
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