The Platform

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. (Xinhua)

Our fixation on China’s atrocious human rights record prevents us from examining the rich layers of political messaging that the opening Olympic ceremony presented.

In comparison to 2008, we saw a softer China. China created a sharp contrast between the 2022 Opening ceremony and 2008. The Summer Olympic Games are more popular than the Winter Olympic Games. Nonetheless, China took the opportunity to update its desired self-presentation to the world. Children and female dancers replaced the male drumming troop that stunned the globe in 2008. The gentle attitude of 2022 emphasized unity within and outside of China. This juxtaposes the adamant statement Beijing made with its 2008 performance that announced China’s arrival as a modern force.

China strengthened its global unity sentiments through the snowflake motif that culminated at the Olympic cauldron. The participating nations’ parade placards formed a large snowflake-shaped cauldron when brought together. The final passing of the Olympic torch concluded with its placement into the open silhouette at the center of the shape.

China stressed its internal unity by acknowledging diversity. The host accentuated its 56 ethnic groups symbolically during the traditional national flag raising. Children passed the flag to two lines of people made up of women and men. These people dressed in either traditional regional clothes or modern parkas.

The 2022 message differed significantly from 2008. China presented itself as inclusive domestically, involved internationally, and ideal for the current world order. This is undoubtedly strategic promotion and propaganda, but it demonstrates the layers China applies to its desired self-portrayal. China-focused on building a softer image that emphasized its capability to exercise tact and grace in the international community. This is a notable change from 2008 when China presented itself as rigid but brilliant.

Speed skating competition at the Winter Olympics. (Xinhua)

China’s human rights record has worsened, yet human rights were also present in 2008. China’s inclusion of Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur athlete, as a final torchbearer is Xi Jinping’s final response to the human rights discourse. China is done discussing the matter.

Politics lurking in the performance. Beyond China’s change in tone for the Opening ceremony, there were elements of the performance with hidden political layers.

The snowflake cauldron was riddled with political undertones. Countries like China, Australia, and Morocco are in the center whereas teams from the United States, France, and Russia are placed on the outskirts. These country placards were not organized by the Chinese stroke order system, nor were they placed alphabetically. Although it may only be symbolic, the placement of these countries could suggest China’s desire to remain in the international community and its world order but under different leadership.

The flag passers included people in military uniforms or in Beijing 2022 volunteer jackets. This choice linked the positive connotation of ethnic diversity with military personnel and international institutions like the IOC. China asserted the importance of its military, and that diversity, inclusion, and international cooperation share the same platform. Furthermore, the inclusion of military personnel may further infuriate countries like India who joined the diplomatic boycott because China made one of its soldiers – who participated in India-China border clashes—a torchbearer.

The opening Olympic ceremony is a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to better understand what China wants to present to the world and how. Other elements worth analyzing include China’s rearrangement of the Parade of Nations to accommodate the Chinese stroke order system, emphasis on the Lunar New Year calendar and the cultural significance of the 24 days, and use of music from the West throughout the performance. To uncover and analyze these layers of performance, rhetoric, and propaganda to identify political positions and desires, the U.S. must leave the dialogue China has already abandoned. The 2022 Winter Olympic Games is China’s platform to communicate, and the U.S. has everything to gain by observing carefully.

Mimi MacKilligan graduated from Trinity College with a BA in International Studies with a regional concentration in East Asia. She is currently a graduate student at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs studying International Security and Asia. Her research interests include Indo-Pacific geopolitics, Asian security, and U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.