Is China prepared to host the Olympic Winter Games?
Chinese officials have promised that the 2022 Winter Olympics — which will be held in February and March and will be followed by the Paralympics — will be a "safe, streamlined, and splendid" global event.
However, this will not be an easy task to accomplish. With less than four weeks remaining, China is scrambling to enforce its strict zero-covid policy in the face of record global infections of the omicron variant, ensure sufficient snowfall in a region of the country where it is scarce, and deal with the US and its allies staging a diplomatic boycott.
Here are China's top concerns heading into the Games, an event designed to help the country rehabilitate its image on the international stage.
What impact will omicron have on the Games?
Beijing is hell-bent on staging a successful Winter Games, which would serve as a propaganda coup for the Chinese leadership, which is eager to demonstrate the superiority of China's approach to combating covid. China, as one of the few countries in the world that continues to pursue a zero-covid strategy through strict quarantines, lockdowns, border controls, and contact tracing, has reported only a few omicron cases.
Over the course of 19 days, over 3,000 athletes, thousands of trainers and support staff, as well as media and spectators, are expected to congregate in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province. All participants will be contained within a "closed loop," with more stringent restrictions than at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. This week, volunteers began entering the closed loop, where they will remain until the event concludes.
The loop, which physically separates Olympic attendees from the surrounding community, will have dedicated transportation and will be closely monitored. Athletes who violate the rules are subject to disqualification. All participants entering the loop must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to their arrival in China, or they will be subject to quarantine. Daily tests will be administered to attendees. At all times, masks will be required.
Omicron and the ongoing pandemic have resulted in a more sedate Olympics. Only Chinese citizens will be admitted as spectators, though organizers have not specified how many. Cheering and yelling have been prohibited.
Outside the loop, China has imposed strict controls, including the closure of Xi'an, a 13 million-person city with fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases of covid. The restrictions have sparked outrage among residents who report being unable to obtain food or medical care as a result of the restrictions.
Will there be sufficient snow?
Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou in China's arid north will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will rely almost entirely on man-made snow and ice. According to organizers, the Alpine skiing venue in Yanqing alone will require 1.2 million cubic meters of snow.
The biggest challenge, officials say, will be maintaining snow quality to meet stringent requirements, which is why "snow cannons" and "snow guns" will be used to create varying densities of snow. In November, Wu Gaosheng, manager of the National Alpine Ski Center, told Chinese state media that a team of Chinese and foreign personnel was working 24 hours a day to ensure the event had enough snow.
"Because the International Snow Federation has strict requirements for slope hardness, snowmaking is the most critical component," Wu explained.
Chinese officials have promised a green Olympics, with all 12 venues powered entirely by renewable energy, but environmentalists question the wisdom of hosting a winter sporting event in a water-stressed region with little natural snow.
Critics argue that water-intensive snow production could continue for years if the venues are converted into permanent ski resorts following the event, thereby reviving China's winter sports industry. The Chinese organizers assert that the event will have no effect on the city's water supply and that the snow will be recycled following the Games.
How much media access will there be?
Chinese officials have stated that journalists will be free to cover the Winter Olympics, and Beijing pledged in its bid that "media wishing to report on the Games will have freedom to do so."
Beijing's contract with the International Olympic Committee requires organizers to ensure that "there shall be no restrictions or limitations on the freedom of the media to provide independent news coverage" of the Games, the Paralympics, and "related events."
However, journalists in China, where both domestic and foreign media outlets are frequently censored and prevented from reporting freely, have already encountered difficulties covering the Games' buildup. In November, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China issued a statement alleging that members had been "constantly stymied" in their coverage of the preparations, including being denied access to events and sports venues, as well as being followed and prevented from interviewing athletes, coaches, and officials.
China's media environment appears to have deteriorated in the run-up to the Games. It is the world's "largest captor of journalists," according to a report by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, with at least 127 journalists currently detained.
Additionally, the International Organizing Committee has guaranteed that attendees will have unrestricted Internet access while in China, where major Western news organizations, Google, and social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are blocked by the "Great Firewall." Similar assurances were made during China's 2008 Summer Olympics bid, but journalists covering the event complained of access restrictions.
Will athletes have freedom of expression while in China?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stated that athletes will have freedom of expression during the Games as long as they adhere to IOC rules prohibiting demonstrations during sporting events or medal ceremonies.
Athletes may bring up a variety of issues, ranging from allegations of cultural genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the erasure of civil liberties in Hong Kong and the arrests of human rights lawyers, activists, and outspoken Chinese citizens.
However, Chinese authorities are extremely sensitive to criticism of their human rights record and role in the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, as well as insults to China's efforts during the Korean War. Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who accused a former senior Chinese official of pressuring her into sex, has largely vanished from public view in the aftermath of her allegations. Her few seemingly scripted media appearances have fueled speculation that authorities have silenced her.
"Foreign athletes are forced to consider self-censorship in order to compete or advance their careers, with corporate sponsors already silent on Chinese human rights abuses," Angeli Datt, senior China researcher at Washington-based human rights organization Freedom House, said. "The International Olympic Committee should not be putting athletes in this situation."
What effect will a Western diplomatic boycott have?
The US, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have all stated that they will not send government representatives to the Olympic Games in protest of China's continued persecution of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Additionally, Japan has stated that it will not send cabinet members.
The boycott excludes athletes and is unlikely to cause the Games to be postponed. Nonetheless, it is humiliating for Beijing, which hosted Western leaders such as US President George W. Bush during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The boycott also reflects growing unease among governments, businesses, and public figures about becoming too close to China.
Beijing has repeatedly stated that it is unconcerned about whether the US and other countries send representatives, noting that US officials were not invited in the first place.