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The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has done many things with impressive vigor and stunning results. It has created an historic economic boom after a disastrous Marxist-Leninist revolution; launched an expansive and expensive project to extend China’s global influence around the world via its Belt and Road Initiative; trained and equipped a world-class military; and organized a latter day techno-autocracy that makes George Orwell’s 1984 seem like a grade school primer. And as the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics last Friday reminded viewers, the CCP can put on a good show.
This year’s ceremony was more modest and subdued than the one in 2008 but was equally well executed. The performance featured phalanxes of singing, smiling, and waving children whose choreography was reminiscent of the performances that were staged during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, which featured kids dancing as “Chairman Mao’s little sunflowers.” Stern-faced soldiers belonging to the People's Liberation Army marched China’s national flag to an official raising. Countless synchronized mass performances featured phalanxes of girls shaking pom-poms and boys wielding lightsabers, creating gorgeous electronic flowers in the darkness.
Surveying the proceedings from on high was Chinese President Xi Jinping. Clad in a black COVID-19 mask and a full-length blue parka that made him look inflated, he anointed the ceremony with a turgid benediction. Xi’s attempt to establish a cult of personality rivaling that of Mao Zedong is constantly being undercut by his lack of charisma: as the scholar Geremie Barmé has put it, “The new Xi Jinping cult is all cult and no personality.” It’s perhaps for this reason that Xi so readily defaults to pomp, ceremony, and ritual to make an impression.
The CCP chose to build the opening ceremony around the theme “one world, one family.” This struck a somewhat discordant note; in many places, including China, an elite consensus has taken hold that globalization is slowing as countries “decouple.” And even amid Xi’s efforts to woo the world into seeing China as a country that wants peace and harmony, there are myriad signs of his more belligerent impulses from Taiwan to the Indian border and Hong Kong to Xinjiang.
Beijing is the only city that has hosted both a summer and winter Olympics and, like the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer games, Friday’s spectacle took place in the magnificent National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. As in 2008, film director Zhang Yimou (whom the party had prevented from collecting a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994) was back as artistic director. In the intervening years, he has honed his skills choreographing big, brassy, outdoor theatrical productions at major tourist destinations around the country. The artist Cai Guo-Qiang returned, as well, as grand master of fireworks. With a carefully stage-managed performance, where no embarrassing details could mar the perfection of its appeal, the CCP aimed to show the world that Xi has restored China’s greatness through a process of rebirth and redemption.
In more subtle ways, the ceremony served as a rebuke to the CCP’s growing list of critics and opponents. In the parade of international teams, Beijing forced Taiwan to march under the name “Chinese Taipei,” and right behind Hong Kong, as if the island were next in line for annexation. Then, to push back against international condemnation of China’s treatment of Uyghurs in the western-most province of Xinjiang, the ceremony concluded with a female Uyghur athlete teamed up with a male Han Chinese counterpart to light the Olympic flame. The flame was set in the middle of a massive snowflake that Zhang elegiacally described as, “Different snowflakes come to Beijing and assemble into a giant snowflake of humankind.” The choice of a Uyghur was a clear rebuke to all those who had decried this year’s Winter Olympics as “the genocide games.” That criticism did not stop corporate sponsors such as Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Visa from providing financial support to the games. Eager to avoid retaliation by Beijing, they have said little about the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs who have been detained in special “re-education centers” in Xinjiang or about Beijing’s abrogation of Hong Kong’s right to a “high degree of autonomy.”
Watching the ceremony, it was hard not to wonder: Who was the CCP trying to impress?
Although the Bird’s Nest seats 88,000 people, on the night of the opening ceremony, it was half empty. Because China’s vaccines are largely ineffective against the highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19, and the CCP has stubbornly resisted turning to foreign imports, the country has maintained a “zero-COVID” strategy. Therefore, only a handpicked audience of 15,000 spectators was allowed to attend the ceremony, essentially reducing the stadium to a giant TV studio sound stage, a situation that fit the party’s political needs perfectly. The leaders of a self-proclaimed People’s Republic were doubtless relieved that such a controversial and high-profile event would not actually involve too many of “the people”—especially unreliable ones from foreign countries who may be inclined to make unscripted protests.
The foreign leaders in attendance were a ragtag group of subprime autocrats, including Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan; Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, who was recently almost defenestrated. Russian President Vladimir Putin was there, too, of course, and he spoke with Xi at a meeting, which both leaders believe will “inject more vitality into China-Russia relations,” according to a report from Chinese state media. Finally, as if he’d somehow wandered into the wrong party, there was UN Secretary-General General António Guterres, who has distinguished himself with his silence on China’s human rights abuses.
Watching the ceremony, it was hard not to wonder: Who was the CCP trying to impress? Do Chinese leaders imagine they can win foreign countries with such propaganda, even as they’ve been so willfully (and successfully) alienating country after country with their bullying, saber- rattling, and retaliatory trade policies? And why does there remain such enduring sensitivity to criticism among Chinese leaders now that they finally have so much to be proud of? In short, how can Beijing be conducting punitive “wolf warrior diplomacy” abroad, while still expecting to sweet-talk these same countries with well-produced but saccharine propaganda displays?
First, one must remember that this ceremony was produced as much for a local Chinese audience as it was for foreigners. The wellspring of China’s new nationalism is, after all, pride in the growing prowess of “the Motherland,” especially in international competition, whether in diplomacy, trade, or sports.
The CCP aimed to show the world that Xi has restored China’s greatness.
But the CCP has always been gripped by an almost obsessive desire to impress—and, if possible, even awe—foreigners. China’s impressive portfolio of developmental accomplishments has never been able to fully slake this longing of party leaders to win the acceptance and respect of the very countries that, because of their censoriousness, China simultaneously treats as adversaries. This is a longstanding contradiction that not even “engagement,” an embracing policy supported by nine U.S. presidential administrations, could resolve.
Engagement was never successful in fully diminishing the party’s yearning to be esteemed as an equal, and perhaps even a superior in certain respects, by other great powers. It is perhaps not surprising that when the CCP is spurned or repudiated by the United States or “the West,” one of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s favorite tropes is to complain that arrogant outsiders have “wounded the feelings of the Chinese people”—an almost comically melodramatic way for a modern great power to explain its disaffection. The problem is this: Because the CCP still tenaciously clings to its retrograde Stalinist conceits, despite all its successes, it can never fully absolve itself of the political disapprobation heaped on it by democratic states. Mao would have recognized this as an “antagonistic contradiction,” meaning that it could never be resolved peacefully.
Xi has inherited this unsolvable dilemma: he wants the outside world to accept his dynamic version of Chinese autocracy, and also to fear it and respect it. His Olympics opening ceremony was all peace and love. But on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—and in his standoffs with Australia, Canada, India, and the United States—he’s aggressive and unyielding, lest compromise be viewed as weakness. The tragic result is that even as China approaches its dream of restored wealth and power after a century and a half of struggle and failure, its success is now being put in jeopardy by a leader who cannot let go of an outdated Leninist narrative of grievance and hostility.
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