Hutong Cat | In China, the politics and economics of the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics was once held in a village called Lake Placid in the state of New York. Sorry, twice.

Not anymore.

Three decades later, the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing has been marked by indignation from rights groups, tentative calls for a diplomatic boycott by a few western, fairly liberal, governments and the snowballing incident of tennis star Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations against top former Communist Party of China (CPC) leader, Zhang Gaoli, a person rightly described by the Economist, as a grandee.

Once, many seasons ago, there was also the original complaint – the lack of natural snow.

A group of 20 Chinese and foreign experts are busy these days making fake snow on the outskirts of Beijing for the upcoming Olympics.

By the time the 17-day games begin on February 4, the National Alpine Skiing Centre and the surrounding area – some 800,000 sq metres — in northwest Beijing is expected to be covered by 1.2 million cubic metres of manufactured snow.

Located in one of the driest areas of China, Beijing, between the months of October/November and April, receives infrequent snow, a fairly critical component for Winter Olympics.

Sporadic snowfall was a criticism against the decision taken by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to, first, accept the candidature and, later, choose Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015 — the first city to be awarded both the summer and winter Games.

However, the lack of natural snow in the city’s hills on the outskirts, and protests from human rights groups, led by many exiled activists from Tibet and Xinjiang, didn’t stop Beijing on its track to the Games; it defeated Kazakhstan’s Almaty, the only other city vying to host the Games, by a 44-40 vote.

Seven years later, Beijing and the neighbouring area of Zhangjiakou in Hebei province are ready.

For China, the Games are political – an opportunity to show off its efficient system, to showcase its resourcefulness and prosperity, and bring out the how-to-control-the-pandemic playbook.

It’s also about money. A lot of money. Especially for the global winter sports industry.

Here’s a snapshot of the opportunities China will leverage in the sector by hosting the Games: It is estimated that the size of China’s winter sports sector will expand to 800 billion yuan (about $117 billion) in 2022 and the total industrial scale will reach 1 trillion yuan ($149.9 billion) by 2025; as of 2020, China had more than 700 ski resorts and around 1000 ice rinks; more than 300 million Chinese are expected to take part in winter sports by 2025, according to official estimates.

Under “The Ice and Snow Sports Development Programme (2016-2025)”, priority sectors for investment “…winter sports infrastructure, snow equipment manufacturing, a competitive performance industry, tourism and winter sports education”.

But protests against the Games in Beijing are growing. So are the talks to boycott the event.

In September, 160 human-rights organisations called on the IOC to withdraw the games from Beijing.

“The IOC must recognise that the Olympic spirit and the reputation of the Olympic Games will suffer further damage if the worsening human rights crisis, across all areas under China’s control, is simply ignored,” said a letter signed by Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong and Mongolian rights groups based across the world.

“The IOC’s reputation was indelibly tarnished by its mistaken belief that the 2008 (Beijing Summer) Olympics would work to improve China’s human rights record. In reality, the prestige of hosting the Olympic Games merely emboldened the Chinese government’s actions,” the letter said.

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said that holding a prestigious event like the Olympics was a source of “enormous pride” to the Chinese government. “The 2008 Olympics) gave them a way to legitimise their human rights abuses, it’s like a reputation laundry for Beijing,” she told CNN.

Less than 100 days to the February 4 opening ceremony, western counties are weighing boycott options. Soon after his video summit with President Xi Jinping, US President Joe Biden, rather surprisingly, said the US was considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 games, meaning only athletes will attend; Australia too is contemplating a diplomatic boycott is “awaiting the decision by the Biden administration,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported Thursday (November 25) and Canadian official told CTV News Saturday that the Canadian government is discussing whether or not it will stage a boycott with its “closest partners.”; the UK too is mulling a diplomatic boycott.

China has dismissed the boycott calls as an attempt to politicise the Games. It has, in fact, readied a counter-punch – in the form of heavyweight Russian President Vladmir Putin. Putin has accepted an invitation to be in Beijing for the Games.If Putin does fly in, it will make him the first state leader to meet Xi since the Chinese President stopped leaving China, in January, 2020, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said jointly celebrating grand milestones had been a long-held tradition of China and Russia and the logistics of the Russian leader’s visit was being worked out.

“The leaders of the two countries will again demonstrate our friendly and neighbourly partnership by meeting at the Winter Olympics,” Zhao said on Tuesday (November 23.)

It’s not only protests from rights activists and the call for boycott from governments marking the run-up to the Games.

The persistent Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) says it’s concerned, and rightly so, about the lack of transparency from the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) as well as the IOC in context of Olympic-related reporting in China.

“Foreign journalists who attempt to register for events are denied because BOCOG limits attendance to only their chosen media outlets, claim the event is full, or because they require participants to submit Covid test results within an impossible timeframe of only a few hours,” the FCCC said.

China has brushed aside all the protests and statements critical of Beijing hosting the Games or the grand city’s handling of the logistics.

The government has more pragmatic laments: Inability to make good ice and snow manufacturing equipment, for one.

China’s industry and IT ministry recently said China needs to urgently produce, among other snow-related equipment, snow makers.

Cynical it might sound, but the industry has its ears to Beijing’s frozen ground.

The views expressed are personal

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