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As the Olympics open, China seeks the limelight but warns against criticism

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meets with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, in Beijing on Jan. 25. Xi said his country was ready to host a "simple, safe and splendid Winter Olympics." The Olympics formally open on Friday.
Zhang Ling
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AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meets with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, in Beijing on Jan. 25. Xi said his country was ready to host a "simple, safe and splendid Winter Olympics." The Olympics formally open on Friday.

When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremony and mingled with the U.S. athletes.

"I happen to believe that not going to the opening ceremony for the Games would be an affront to the Chinese people," Bush said.

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 Uyghur minority amounts to "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games."

This diplomatic boycott by the U.S. and several other Western countries is symbolic — the athletes from all these countries are still competing.

But China is facing a tough balancing act.

The country wants the global spotlight so it can display its remarkable rise, yet Beijing is hypersensitive to criticism of human rights abuses at home and growing friction with countries abroad.

Michael Beckley, a China expert at Tufts University, said China still believes it can use the Games for some muscle flexing.

"It's a way for them to try to show off how their government can deal with something like COVID," he said. "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.'"

Chinese workers in protective suits at the Beijing airport guide arriving passengers ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which formally begin on Friday.
Aaron Favila / AP
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AP
Chinese workers in protective suits at the Beijing airport guide arriving passengers ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which formally begin on Friday.

Olympic athletes are being greeted by Chinese officials in hazmat suits conducting COVID-19 tests. The competitors will be restricted to a secure COVID bubble throughout their time in China. The FBI has urged U.S. athletes to leave their phones at home and take only a disposable burner phone to protect sensitive personal information against possible hacking.

Some countries will see China's level of control and be impressed, said Anja Manuel, executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group.

"People do sometimes have authoritarian envy," she said. "They build beautiful roads and airports, and when they make a decision, it gets implemented pretty quickly."

That's fine, she added, until problems arise and there's no way to change leaders.

"I think authoritarian envy can only last for so long before people really understand," she noted.

Things have changed under President Xi

In the past, China's foreign policy was to lay low, keep its ambitions hidden and not create friction. That's changed dramatically under President Xi Jinping, who became president a decade ago.

"China has thrown off any semblance of restraint in its foreign policy," Beckley said. "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."

Xi is entering a crucial year. Not only is he presiding over the Olympics, he's seeking a third five-year term as the country's leader, brushing aside the tradition of just two terms.

Due to COVID, Xi has not left the country in two years and has not received foreign leaders — though Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony on Friday.

Meanwhile, China now faces rocky relations on multiple fronts. There was a border skirmish with India in 2020 and a heated spat with Australia when it signed a big submarine deal with the United States. Tensions over Taiwan keep rising.

MIT Professor Yasheng Huang said the Chinese leadership is taking a big risk with its aggressive foreign policy.

The country shouldn't "brag about its own technological power without realizing that the foundation of that is actually dependent on a good working relationship with the United States, with Japan, with South Korea, with the West."

China frequently talks about remaking a global order that would be more to China's liking. But Huang says Chinese leaders should be careful what they wish for.

"They often say, 'Oh, this is the American global order.' OK, it probably is the American global order. But that's not the right question. The right question is: 'Have you benefited from it?'"

Anja Manuel said the the moment has probably passed for China to integrate smoothly into the existing international system.

"That's become much harder under Xi Jinping," she said. "Is this policy of real aggression from China sustainable? I don't think so. At some point there's going to have to be a course correction."

But don't expect that at the Olympics.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.