Beijing steels itself for Winter Olympics with ambitious quarantine system of bubbles, apps and special lanes

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Beijing steels itself for Winter Olympics with ambitious quarantine system of bubbles, apps and special lanes
© Provided by The i CNN International correspondent David Culver in Bejing (Photo: CNN)

Back in July, the International Olympic Committee announced a change to the Olympic motto, adding the word “Together” to its 125-year-old “Faster, Higher, Stronger” banner. It was meant to signify the importance of standing in solidarity. But as Beijing readies itself to host this year’s Winter Olympics, its focus is on keeping people apart.

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Landing in Beijing right now is like entering a fortress. At the Capital International Airport – the only port of entry for athletes, Games personnel, and media – Olympic participants will be kept apart from the general population. A high wall snakes throughout the terminal designated to handle Olympic traffic, guaranteeing separation from the moment participants arrive until they depart for home.

Outside, participants enter the “Closed Loop System”, a series of bubbles, connected by shuttles that will whisk them between approved hotels and venues and the Olympic village.

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Those travelling to mountain venues outside Beijing will do so via high-speed trains and pristine highways, freshly built for this giant, complex event. The trains have designated carriages for the Olympic crowd, while closed-loop buses will travel in specially marked lanes. Unaccredited drivers who encroach into these spaces face fines.

The rules are so extreme that if a vehicle from an Olympic convoy should be involved in an accident, locals have been told not to approach it; instead, a special unit of medics has been set up to respond.

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All those coming here have been obliged to download an app, through which they must monitor their health, beginning 14 days before arrival. Such strict surveillance and contact tracing measures are familiar to anyone living in China, but make visitors uneasy.

Cybersecurity experts have warned that the app has encryption flaws, meaning personal data could be compromised. China and the IOC dismissed these concerns, but Team USA and other countries have been advised to bring disposable “burner” phones.

The fact these Olympics are taking place so close to the anniversary of the Wuhan lockdown, which marked the beginning of this gruelling pandemic, looms over the occasion. Then, the world watched as a city of more than 11 million was sealed off, streets emptied, people were confined to their homes, and hospitals quickly filled up with panicked patients.

Rather like these Olympics, Wuhan’s lockdown was a demonstration of China’s ability to control and mobilise. Giant field hospitals and quarantine centres appeared within days to isolate the infected, and Wuhan’s strictest of lockdowns lasted 76 days before it was relaxed.

The brutal and painful episode foreshadows China’s current rigid Covid policies, some of the most stringent anywhere in the world. Two years ago, China told the United States it was overreacting when it cut off flights from the country; but today Beijing has virtually closed off its borders and works hard to portray the virus as an imported threat. A 21-day quarantine period is already standard here for international arrivals, while some cities require additional isolation on top of that.

The Olympics add another layer to this desire to control, especially given the backdrop of increasingly frosty relationships with the West. Scrutiny of human rights issues in China has become more intense than ever, while tensions in Hong Kong and Taiwan have increased. All of this has come in tandem with international frustrations over China’s opacity around the origins of the Covid outbreak.

Beijing has hosted the Olympics before, in August 2008, making it the only city to host both the summer and winter games. It has changed dramatically in the ensuing 14 years.

Back in 2008, China wanted to portray itself as the emerging world power, with a “coming out party” on a global stage. The Chinese government put English-language signs up throughout the city and embarked on an enthusiastic programme to teach its citizens English.

This time, officials have ordered the removal of English signs at subway stations, replacing them with Pinyin, the country’s own system of Romanising Chinese characters. Public sentiment is taking a cue from this official messaging. Now the pervasive feeling is one of rising resentment toward the West, and the country appears to be increasingly looking inward.

China wants this Olympics to be a demonstration of its ability to stage a high-profile global event despite Covid. It also wants to show the superiority of its methods of containing the virus and, by extension, its authoritarian political system. There is no question that both will be tested to the extreme.

With an estimated 11,000 international arrivals expected here, shuttling through three competition zones up to 111 miles apart, this is arguably the most ambitious quarantine project ever undertaken. But there is no doubting China’s determination to make it work. Whether Beijing 2022 will be remembered as an event that lives up to the spirit of the Olympic movement, and its newly revised motto, is another matter entirely.

David Culver is a CNN International Correspondent. You can follow CNN’s coverage of the Winter Olympics on CNN International and at CNN.com

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