Chinese President Xi Jinping will host 21 world leaders at the Winter Olympics, and a majority of them preside over non-democratic regimes.
Twelve of the leaders – including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the most high-profile attendee – rule nations labeled either “authoritarian” or “hybrid regime” in the latest Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index. The organisation rates nations by their electoral process, political participation and civil liberties.
Another eight head democracies and Monaco, which wasn’t rated by the EIU, is labeled “free” by US-based Freedom House. The 2008 Olympics attracted a range of leaders from Western democracies, highlighted by former US president George W. Bush’s presence in Beijing.
A Washington-led diplomatic boycott of this year’s Olympics over alleged human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region – labelled genocide by the White House – has made attendance by heads of state deeply political. Beijing has struggled to manage the fallout, calling the genocide claims “vicious lies” and saying it didn’t plan to invite some “anti-China” politicians anyway.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it opposed the politicisation of sports and vowed “to ensure the smooth holding” of the Beijing Games. “The Winter Olympics is a grand event for athletes around the world, and China has the confidence to present a simple, safe, and wonderful Olympic event,” the ministry said Wednesday in an emailed response to questions.
Covid restrictions are partly to blame for the downturn in attendance from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, when China showcased its expanding economic prowess shortly before a housing crisis in the United States sparked a global financial crisis. China is one of the last places trying to eliminate Covid outbreaks and has been especially vigilant around the capital, requiring visiting dignitaries to undergo strict testing regimes.
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Pakistan’s delegation, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, were expected to take daily coronavirus tests for four consecutive days before attending the opening ceremony, according to people familiar with the matter. Any positive tests among them would force the entire delegation to turn back, the people said. A spokesman for the prime minister didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Leaders from Austria, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and North Korea have cited the pandemic for their absence – even though the IOC had already suspended Pyongyang’s participation in events until the end of 2022 for ditching last summer’s Tokyo Games.
While Summer Games are always better attended, not least because most of Africa and South America don’t compete in the winter, several democracies that normally send leaders are absent this year, including Denmark, Finland and Norway. Pew Research Center surveys show attitudes toward China becoming less favorable in Western nations in recent years.
“The level of scrutiny on Beijing’s human rights record has changed dramatically since the 2008 Olympics and in democratic countries, in particular, public views of China are at record lows,” said Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute think tank’s public opinion and foreign policy programme.
The countries with leaders attending account for six percent of global gross domestic product, according to calculations based on World Bank data. Leaders of developing economies who show up have a chance to sit down with Xi, as he resumes in-person diplomacy after a near two-year hiatus due to Covid.
Argentina's President Alberto Fernández is expected to ask China for an expansion of its bilateral currency swap in yuan while he’s in town. Five Central Asian countries announced their attendance in tandem with Beijing’s pledge of US$500 million in aid and 50 million doses of Covid vaccines.
“The Winter Olympics guest list shows how the US championing of values-based diplomacy combined with China’s wolf warrior diplomacy have weakened Beijing’s diplomatic outreach toward liberal democracies,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the Australian National University Taiwan studies programme. The countries attending “have relatively less to lose diplomatically from not aligning with the United States, and more to gain economically from attending the Olympics and getting into Beijing’s good graces.”
by Krystal Chia, Bloomberg