The Olympic torch arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, kicking off the countdown to the Winter Games, which will be held in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic and calls for a boycott due to China’s human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
The arrival ceremony, like the official lighting of the Olympic flame in Athens on Monday, took place without the presence of spectators, one of many concessions to Covid-19 that will severely limit access to the games, which begin on Feb. 4.
China plans to hold the Games with even stricter health protocols than those in place for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year, with the “full support” of the International Olympic Committee. Only vaccinated and screened Chinese residents will be allowed to attend as spectators, while athletes, broadcasters, journalists, and others working at Olympic sites will be confined to one of three bubble-like environments for the duration of their visit. Those who have not been immunized face 21-day quarantines upon arrival.
The ceremonies on Wednesday set the tone for a low-key Games. Only a small delegation greeted the flight carrying the canister containing the flame at Beijing’s airport. The flame was ceremoniously lit indoors at Beijing’s Olympic Park. The event was announced to international journalists with less than 12 hours’ notice, and those invited could only attend after passing a Covid test. The contrast with 2008, when China hosted the first Olympics, was stark.
The ceremony was then held in Tiananmen Square in front of thousands of spectators, albeit under tight security due to political unrest in Tibet.
China’s leader at the time, Hu Jintao, presided. The current leader, Xi Jinping, who was already a rising political force, stated that China hosting the Games fulfilled a century-old dream.
Since last year, China has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus, keeping its borders largely sealed and suppressing periodic flare-ups by locking down entire cities and neighborhoods. The health measures have also provided the country’s authorities with tools to keep potential political protests under even tighter control.
Calls for an official boycott, or even for Beijing to relinquish its role as host, have received little traction. Protesters are still hoping to use the international spotlight to draw attention to China’s authoritarian policies, particularly against Tibetans and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where China has conducted a mass detention and re-education campaign.
On Monday, activists managed to elude security during the torch lighting ceremony in Athens, unfurling a Tibetan flag and a banner that read, “No Genocide Games.” In Beijing, such a breach would be unthinkable. A traditional torch relay — introduced in 1936 when Nazi Germany hosted the Summer Games in Berlin — has also been canceled, as it was in Tokyo.
China’s month-long international relay became a lightning rod in 2008, sparking large and chaotic protests in a number of cities, including Paris, London, and San Francisco.
This time, organizers intend to hold a shortened relay at home on the eve of the opening ceremony in Beijing on February 4. It will travel between the three Olympic venues: Beijing, Yanqing, and Zhangjiakou, which are located in the hills north of the capital.