March 24, 2023

Beijing Winter Olympics: The Games will be a big test for Xi as he looks to burnish his leadership image

Two days from now, Chinese President Xi Jinping is going to face one of his toughest tests yet. Beijing will kick off the Winter Olympics which is expected to be the high-water mark of the Xi regime. The last time Beijing hosted the Olympics – the Summer Games in 2008 – both China and the world were very different. The 2008 Olympics was seen as Beijing’s coming out party with world leaders embracing a new China. This time the narrative is very different with Western democracies increasingly viewing China as a systemic rival while Xi’s regime is determined to showcase the superiority of the Chinese communist system.

In fact, several Western leaders will be conspicuous by their absence at the Beijing Games as they enforce a diplomatic boycott citing the Chinese regime’s human rights violations. Led by the US, the group includes Australia, UK, Canada, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. Others cite Beijing’s stringent Covid protocols for the Games as reason for downgrading their official delegations and keeping leaders away. Therefore, the Olympics will certainly be dotted with empty seats in the VIP section.

Meanwhile, the biggest challenge at hand for Chinese authorities is ensuring a Covid-free games. Beijing has put in place a complicated Olympic bubble, hermetically sealing off thousands of foreign participants, officials and local staff and volunteers from the general population. However, a small batch of Covid cases have already been detected inside the bubble comprising 0.02% of routine tests. Another 1.53% tests conducted upon arrival have also returned positive. With China persisting with its zero-Covid strategy, showcasing this as an achievement of the Xi regime, any Covid flare-ups inside the Games that spill out into the general population could snowball into political costs for the leadership.

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And with the 20 th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party slated to be held later in the year, the way the Olympic Games pan out could have an impact on elite Chinese politics. Which is personally testing for Xi given that he is widely believed to be angling for an unconventional third term at the helm of the party-state system. In that sense, the Olympic Games kick off a long and tricky year of politics for China’s supreme leader.



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