Opening ceremony kicks off Winter Olympics in Beijing as China and Russia fashion a new world order
The ordinary people of Beijing were not allowed to buy tickets to the opening ceremony so they stood at the Bird’s Nest, waiting for the fireworks.

They watched the ceremony on their phones, shivering in the freezing cold.

At least until police moved them away, a mile and a half down the road, to a place deemed appropriate for the public.

Soldiers quickly put up barriers to corral them.

They were a long way from the pomp and the politics, and a long way from the real business. That had been decided before, when Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met.

As the countries of the world came together for the Olympics, the two leaders were already carving it up.

They coordinated their positions on Ukraine and in statements agreed that NATO should not expand in Eastern Europe and that Taiwan belonged to China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing© Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in BeijingIt felt like a moment. While Western leaders stay away from Beijing, China and Russia are fashioning a new world order.

“Russia and China are pushing back against the notion that only the US and its allies are writing the rules,” Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Programme at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told Sky News.

“The unipolar moment is long gone and the US should actually try to negotiate and establish rules of behaviour together with other great powers.

© Reuters“Otherwise, it’s going to be a source of conflict, competition, and even wars.”

The mood from the 2008 Summer Olympics, also held in Beijing, has been very different.

Much of that is down to COVID. The city has been divided into separate “loops”, where there is no contact between the Olympic bubble and the outside world.

People grinned and cheered as the fireworks went off Pic: Harrison Hill-USA TODAY Sports© Reuters People grinned and cheered as the fireworks went off Pic: Harrison Hill-USA TODAY SportsIt has made for a flat atmosphere.

And there is the diplomatic boycott by some Western governments, over allegations of human rights abuses – of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, of the crackdown in Hong Kong.

But it is also a product of how China has developed since that spectacular summer.

“China was basically getting a seat at the top table in 2008,” Mark Dreyer, the author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View On China’s Quest To Be The Best, told Sky News.

“Now it’s writing the name cards, and it’s telling everyone else where to sit.

“Fourteen years ago, the West had very clear predictions about where it thought China was going. China has made a lot of progress and developed further in those 14 years since, but it hasn’t been in the way that the West expected.”

Some of those political tensions were evident in the opening ceremony itself, for all its blandness.

The opening speech, by a Chinese Communist Party official, praised the “strong leadership of Xi Jinping”.

The athletes of Taiwan, where democracy is flourishing, marched alongside Hong Kong, where it is crumbling.

And one of the torchbearers to light the Olympics flame was an Uyghur from Xinjiang – a pointed act of political PR by the Chinese organisers.

But for the Beijingers out on the street, all that was immaterial.

The long cold wait was worth it. They grinned and cheered as the fireworks went off.

Even from a distance, it was spectacular.

And that must be the hope of the Chinese governments, that for the next few weeks people focus on the spectacle and ignore the harder questions – of the redrawing of the geopolitical map, of the repression of the country that is hosting the Olympics.


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