Politics was never far from centre stage at the opening ceremony yesterday of the Winter Olympic games in Beijing. Like most Games, the event is as much an exercise in national branding as an exhibition of sporting excellence, and China has invested heavily in it as a means of showcasing the supposed superiority of its political system, its status as a world power, and its zero-Covid strategy. The event provides a platform for leader Xi Jinping ahead of his assumption of an unprecedented third term as head of the Communist Party, state and military at a congress in the autumn.
Beijing's priorities were emphasised in the very public meeting between Xi and Vladimir Putin ahead of the ceremony and their joint statement which lauded their alliance and called for a halt to Nato expansion. Putin also fully endorsed Beijing's position on Taiwan and opposed its independence in any form. In the stadium Taiwanese athletes were announced by the Olympic authorities as such, though state TV had them representing mainland China.
Political comment will be the sole prerogative of the hosts. Athletes have been warned against political gestures and have been told they are subject not only to Olympic rules but to Chinese law. Domestic TV feeds will be broadcast with a time delay, allowing protests to be cut off before reaching Chinese viewers.
China has interned more than one million Muslim Uighurs since launching a mass campaign of repression in Xinjiang in 2017. It has cracked down on and jailed democracy activists in Hong Kong, bullied neighbours in the South China Sea, and threatened Taiwan with reincorporation into the People's Republic. These are the things China decrees must not be spoken of.
And so the 13 international sponsors who will make the games financially viable – Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Atos, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Intel, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Toyota and Visa – have all chosen discretion and silence about Chinese human rights abuses to protect their access to a lucrative market.