Andréa Worden | China Change
This article was first published on China Change web site.
“The Olympics and Paralympics send a fantastic message of ‘peace and of mutual respect between people of all cultures, all civilizations and all ethnicities,’ said Guterres, days before his trip to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
It is necessary to shine a light on the Olympic spirit, which also means mutual understanding, tolerance, respect and dialogue, said Guterres, adding that the spirit ‘is very much in line with the values of the UN.’”
To realize Xi Jinping’s goal of China’s “great national rejuvenation” and a China-led “community of shared future for humankind” fueled by his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi needs the enthusiastic support and cooperation of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach. And he’s getting it.
And Guterres and Bach, in turn, are dependent on Xi and the Chinese party-state to achieve their goals, bolster their influence and power, and to provide needed funding and support for their organizations. Guterres has called China “the pillar of multilateralism of the world,” and has actively promoted the BRI within the United Nations, using the Chinese Communist Party talking points.
As for the IOC, China is viewed as critical to the ongoing viability of the Games and the Olympic Movement (and thus the IOC itself), which in part explains Bach’s unrestrained excitement about the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, and the surpassing of Xi’s promise of 300 million Chinese people engaging in winter sports before the start of the Beijing Games (346 million since 2015, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics). In an interview with Xinhua after his arrival in Beijing last month, Bach said Beijing 2022 “will open a new era for winter sports globally” and that the Games will not only create a national legacy for people in China, but also a legacy for the international community and the Olympic movement.
Xi, Bach, and Guterres have a “mutually beneficial” three-way symbiotic relationship, and they increasingly speak the same language –– a mix of IOC Olympic-speak, Xiist “mutual” everything (e.g., respect, understanding, beneficial cooperation, etc.), “together for a shared future” (#Beijing2022 motto), and UN jargon (e.g., multilateralism, international cooperation, peace, unity, etc.). Their shared buzzwords in the context of Beijing 2022 also include political neutrality, Olympic Truce, unity, solidarity, (Bach invoked “peace” and “solidarity” 11 times each in a 8-minute video message to the Human Rights Council last summer), “together” (the IOC amended the Olympic motto in 2021 to add “together”), and the “Olympic spirit,” a vaguely defined concept that seemed to just be waiting for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propagandists to grab hold of it. This brew of bromides –– who can be opposed to solidarity, togetherness, the Olympic spirit? –– serves to obscure human rights atrocities happening on the ground in China.
Despite IOC promises to the contrary with respect to Beijing 2022 athletes’ freedom of speech, Yang Shu, an official with the Beijing organizing committee, said in true CCP-style: “‘Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,’ Yang said. ‘Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.’”
Yang Shu thus made it painfully clear that Beijing has given “against-the-Olympic-spirit” the punitive power of a “pocket crime,” aptly described by journalist Ryan Ho Kilpatrick as “an offence into which almost any action can be fitted that is frowned upon by the authorities –– with its deliberate obfuscation of language.” To the triumvirate of Beijing 2022 –– Xi, Bach, and Guterres –– their calls for solidarity and embracing the Olympic spirit mean no dissent and no raising of “confrontational” human rights issues.
Welcome to the Beijing 2022 Gaslit Games!
Xi Welcomes Thomas Bach to Beijing for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
Xi Jinping pulled out all the stops for his first meeting with Thomas Bach in late January. The fact that the meeting was in person, a rare ocurrence during the pandemic, signals just how important the IOC and Bach are to Xi and his vision for China’s future and China’s role in the Olympic Movement. Other high-level CCP officials at the meeting included ranking diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. At the meeting, Xi said, “This is the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that a comprehensive global sporting event is held as scheduled. It is a successful example of acting upon the new Olympic motto: ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together’.” Xi continued,
“The notion of ‘Together’ championed by the Olympic Movement is needed more than ever. Instead of riding separately in some 190 small boats, countries around the world should stay together in one giant vessel and sail toward a brighter future. That is why we put forth ‘Together for a Shared Future’ as the official motto for the Beijing 2022 Games. China will make new and bigger contributions to the Olympic Movement and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind. ‘I look forward to witnessing the important moment of the Games’ opening with you, President Bach,’ said President Xi.”
Xi Jinping left the obvious unsaid: China would captain that “one giant vessel” toward a brighter future.
CCP propagandists are experts at flattery and devising ways to ingratiate themselves with foreigners they want something from; the result is a strong “mutually beneficial” connection that makes it that much harder for those being “honored” to disagree with the CCP. For example, shortly before Bach arrived in Beijing, his bust in the Dongsi Community Olympic Park was unveiled. It joins busts of Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was the IOC president when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, and Jacques Rogge who was president during the 2008 Games. The park also contains a statue of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC and its second president. Dongsi Community Olympic Park is reportedly the first park in Beijing “dedicated to promoting the Olympic spirit.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Goes to Beijing for Xi’s Games
On January 14, UNSG António Guterres told reporters that he would attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4 with this message: that the Games “must be an instrument of peace in the world” and that he would be present at the opening “without any political dimension.” According to Guterres’ spokesperson, the Secretary-General will meet (officially) with Thomas Bach and unnamed “Chinese authorities” while he is in China. Guterres will also attend Xi Jinping’s “welcoming banquet” for foreign heads of state, governments, and heads of international organizations attending the opening ceremony. The guest list includes other visiting international VIPs, Thomas Bach, of course, as well as the UN General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid, who was also invited to participate in the Torch Relay in Beijing, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Guterres is due to return to New York on February 6, according to his spokesman. If Guterres follows his script from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, he will deliver unctuous remarks about Thomas Bach and the host of the Games, Xi Jinping, and how they overcame such difficult challenges to successfully stage the Beijing 2022 Olympics –– such an important symbol of peace, solidarity, and the world coming together, even amid a pandemic. He’ll likely be effusive about the opening ceremony and the involvement of so many teenagers in the performance; youth engagement in the UN and cultivating youth leaders is an important part of Guterres’ agenda, and “Our Common Agenda.” Great initiative to be sure, except that the teenagers’ performance will be used by the CCP to signal that “Together for a Shared Future” will be driven and dominated by the Chinese party-state and its youth.
After Guterres spoke to reporters about attending the opening ceremony on January 14, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its spokesperson Wang Wenbin, welcomed Guterres to China for the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, saying:
“Lately, international organizations including the UN and the IOC as well as many countries have all said that they support and look forward to the Games and reject politicizing sports, which fully demonstrates the international community’s shared aspiration of working “together for a shared future.” As the curtain is about to lift on the Beijing 2022, we have every confidence that China will present a streamlined, safe and splendid Olympic event to the world by working together with all sides to practice the Olympic spirit of ‘together’.”
“Quiet diplomacy”: Unaccountable leaders acting unaccountably
The triumvirate of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics have much in common. They each wield an inordinate amount of power on the global stage and are effectively unaccountable. In 2021, both Bach and Guterres secured continuous terms in office in uncontested elections; Xi Jinping will almost certainly be reappointed for a third term as CCP general secretary this fall, having dispensed with presidential term limits and neutralized any potential rivals. Together, they are ushering in a dystopian, rights-free authoritarian present and future, which is being played out before the world at the Beijing Games. Their shared hypocritical insistence that the Olympics must not be politicized, that sport and politics don’t mix (unless, of course, it’s to their advantage) and that the IOC is “politically neutral” aims to squash any hint of dissent and criticism. When unaccountable authoritarian leaders speak of “solidarity” it means only one thing: their way, or else. The Chinese party-state has a panoply of tools for silencing and disappearing problems and threats, from the tennis star Peng Shuai who dared to publicly accuse a former vice-premier of sexual assault, to human rights lawyers and defenders, to entire peoples.
Rhetoric aside, Bach and Guterres have aligned themselves with Xi Jinping and the CCP on human rights issues. They embrace “quiet diplomacy,” arguing that private “dialogue and cooperation,” rather than public statements and criticism, are effective. Their quiet diplomacy approach to human rights means continued atrocities –– the Uyghur genocide immediately comes to mind–– and no justice for victims of human rights abuses or accountability for the perpetrators. By draining critically important words and concepts such as democracy, freedom, and human rights of any objective meaning, they are laying the foundation for a gaslit world, primed for the realization of the CCP’s “community with a shared future for humankind,” a “shared future” of high-tech surveillance, censorship, and repression led by the CCP, buttressed by the United Nations via Guterres and the IOC through Bach. With the UN and the IOC singing the same tune and employing CCP discourse and concepts, the Chinese party-state is able to “demonstrate” that the “international community” –– save for a few nettlesome detractors led by the U.S. –– agrees with it on pretty much everything.
The triumvirate outdo each other in mutual praise and have each other’s backs in troubled times. The IOC’s complicity in Beijing’s silencing and disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai exemplifies the degree to which the IOC is enmeshed with the Chinese party-state; their interests are completely aligned. Peng, a beloved star on the world stage of tennis, posed a serious threat to Xi and his Games, and thus to Bach and the IOC, when she publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who oversaw Beijing 2022 Olympics preparations until his retirement in 2018, of sexual assault. After the CCP botched its initial attempts to defuse the crisis, it called in the IOC for an assist; the IOC only managed to make things worse and further damage its already beleaguered reputation.
Thomas Bach’s “agreed to” in-person meeting and dinner with Peng Shuai in Beijing (as if Peng Shuai could have declined the invite) is now set to happen sometime after the opening of the Games on February 4. Peng Shuai and her expected reappearance at the Beijing Olympics has attracted more attention than it might have otherwise in the wake of the “Where is Peng Shuai” t-shirt campaign at the Australian Open in late January, and Tennis Australia’s feckless response.
In a discussion on the Tennis Channel (January 23) during the Australian Open, former top US professional tennis player, Lindsay Davenport, said that people in the tennis community want to see her and “to know that she’s OK.” Davenport said that Peng “was a real part of this tour,” and noted that Peng was in her mid-30s, and “we’ve seen players playing into their early 40s. We want to see her at the Australian Open,” she said.
The IOC-Peng Shuai meeting, facilitated by the Chinese Olympic Committee, will be a carefully choreographed, perhaps final, attempt to neutralize Peng Shuai through a staged public propaganda performance, with Peng forced into the leading role, her script perfectly memorized. The IOC hinted in late December of a possible retirement announcement from Peng Shuai in a letter to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), writing that during the two video calls they had with Peng, she discussed among other things, “the effects the Covid pandemic was having on the continuation of her career.” Just as more and more women on the professional women’s tennis tour are asking about her and expressing concern, and the tennis commentariat is noting that some women play into their early 40s and they want to see Peng back on the tour and at the Australian Open, she will “be retired” (bei tuixiu). Peng won’t be permitted to travel and is completely cut off from the international tennis community.
With the scripted video call on November 21, and a statement released on December 2 claiming a second video call had been made on December 1 –– both clearly orchestrated by the CCP –– Thomas Bach and the IOC participated in a propaganda charade aimed at assuring the world that Peng Shuai, was “safe and well,” although she still had not been seen in person by any independent source who could verify her well-being and freedom of movement, let alone her freedom of speech. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) still has not been able to contact her, nor have tennis players on the women’s tour been able to reach her. The IOC has not released transcripts of the calls or any actual video footage, only a screen shot from the first call on November 21. Without addressing Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations, the IOC explained “their approach” in its December 2 statement echoing unusual language and phrasing from CCP human rights discourse. The IOC said:
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation…. We are using “quiet diplomacy” which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
In the late December letter to the CECC referenced above, the IOC again mentioned that it was hoping to find a solution to the Peng Shuai “situation” through “quiet diplomacy and dialogue,” and that [b]ased on the experience of other organisations, governments and ourselves, this option seemed the more promising to us.” The IOC also said that their “person-centred and human approach will continue.”
The IOC’s “human and person-centred approach” comes straight from the Chinese Communist Party: PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a speech at the UN Human Rights Council in February 2021 titled, “A People-centered Approach for Global Human Rights Progress.” This “approach” unsurprisingly has done nothing to allay concerns about Peng Shuai’s safety or her sexual assault allegations. The IOC has revealed to the world that it is completely enmeshed in the Chinese party-state, its discourse, priorities, and propaganda –– from Peng Shuai’s disappearance, to China’s “success” in battling Covid-19, to Xi Jinping’s claims of getting more than 300 million Chinese people engaged in winter sports before the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
The UN is without doubt one of the “other organizations” the IOC alludes to in its statement and letter to the CECC. As mentioned earlier, UNSG Guterres is a proponent of “quiet diplomacy” with China, which for him has amounted to dismissing egregious human rights violations in China, refusing to speak publicly about the Uyghurs, and passing the responsibility off to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council, as if the protection and promotion of human rights, one of the three pillars of the United Nations, is not something that he really needs to be concerned about beyond the level of general platitudes and less than robust programming efforts. While in Beijing in April 2019 for the second Belt and Road Forum, Guterres reportedly met with Xi Jinping on the sidelines, but only raised the issue of Xinjiang (barely) in a separate meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, telling Wang that he “fully stands by the initiatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.”
More recently, it appears that Guterres may have played a role in delaying the release of High Commissioner Bachelet’s report on the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic groups in Xinjiang. Beijing did not want the report released before the Olympics, and made a disingenuous “offer” by promising that Bachelet could visit the region after the Olympics –– yet the terms of just such a visit have been under discussion since 2018 –– in exchange for the UN delaying the release of the report.
The “personal meeting” with Peng Shuai, it turns out, will be held sometime after the opening of the Games on February 4, according to Thomas Bach, who announced the new plan after his arrival in Beijing in late January. Joining him at the meeting, which Bach said would be held inside the “closed loop,” will be other IOC-affiliated individuals, and should include at least the women on the first video call, Chinese IOC member Li Lingwei, and Emma Terho. In an interview with Around the Rings on January 27, Bach said the IOC was being assisted by the (official) Chinese Olympic Committee, “which has been very supportive before,” to make the meeting happen, “while respecting the closed loop system due to Covid.” Emma Terho herself tested positive for Covid-19 upon her arrival in Beijing on January 28, which may affect the scheduling of the meeting. Around the Rings asked Bach about the contact he said the IOC had with Peng the previous week. Bach said his team was “following up” and that he only took part in the first video call, and reported that the IOC team and Peng were “getting to know each other much better and she expressed she’s looking forward to this meeting and to follow the Games and her fellow Chinese Olympians performing here at the Games.”
Before Guterres left the U.S. for Beijing, he sent Lunar New Year greetings to China via video message (January 28) in which he said:
“I thank China and the Chinese people for your commitment to multilateralism and the United Nations. I count on your continuous support and cooperation to advance Our Common Agenda and to realize our shared hopes for a peaceful and sustainable future.” After mentioning his upcoming trip to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, he proclaimed: “The Olympic spirit shines as a beacon to human solidarity.”
Andréa Worden, J.D., M.A., is a human rights advocate, translator and writer, whose work focuses primarily on the PRC party-state’s interactions with the UN human rights mechanisms. Follow her on Twitter @tingdc