Xi Counts Some Diplomatic Wins After Polarizing Winter Olympics


The Beijing Winter Olympics ended Sunday without a major protest, diplomatic incident, virus debacle or war in Ukraine. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, that’s about as good as could be expected.

A U.S.-led diplomatic boycott had raised the stakes for governments around the world, with attendance framed as a choice between respecting human rights or cozying up to the world’s No. 2 economy. The most-powerful attendee, Russian President Vladimir Putin, added to the drama with a military buildup around Ukraine as Western powers sought to deter a conflict. 

Still, Xi came away with some wins. He held at least 18 bilateral meetings with world leaders of mostly developing nations, inking several economic agreements on the sidelines. He also threw a banquet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, attended by International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

And Xi scored a soft-power coup: American-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu won two golds and one silver medal after choosing to compete for China over the U.S. — a much-needed endorsement of the Communist Party’s system of governance as opinions of the authoritarian country fall around the globe.

“Beijing seems to have accomplished what it set out to do politically,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the Australian National University Taiwan studies program. “China likely sees the diplomatic boycott as a short-term inconvenience. The bigger long-term prize is the chance to demonstrate the performance legitimacy of China’s governance model.”

Putin stole the show at the outset of the Games, backing China on Taiwan and winning Xi’s support to close ranks against the U.S. and its allies on key security issues. In a joint statement after the two leaders’ first in-person meeting in more than two years, China supported Moscow in opposing the expansion of NATO, prompting U.S. officials to caution Beijing that any conflict between Ukraine and Russia would affect China’s interests.

While some leaders failed to show — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pulled out at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict and Papua New Guinea’s prime minister flew home after testing positive for Covid on arrival — Xi’s other meetings proved fruitful.

Argentina became the 148th nation to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with President Alberto Fernandez pledging a five-year plan for agricultural cooperation. South America’s second-largest economy is working with the International Monetary Fund to stave off default. 

Xi also touted China’s readiness to help Poland — one of two European Union members to send a head of state — become a logistic hub, and spoke of an “iron clad” friendship with Serbia in meetings with their leaders, the Communist Party-backed Global Times reported. China and Pakistan renewed a commitment to their economic corridor, while Beijing’s relationship with Kazakhstan “reached a new height,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry. 

Within China, some 600 million people watched the Games despite unprecedented restrictions on athletes inside the Olympic Bubble. China’s best-ever gold-medal haul put it third on the leader board, bolstering Xi’s ambition of getting 300 million citizens involved in winter sports by 2025. 

China’s ability to hold the Games amid a global pandemic showed the world Xi’s system — and its strategy of virus elimination — works, said Henry Wang Huiyao, founder of the Center for China & Globalization policy research group in Beijing. “China has been so organized, functioning so well, with no major accident,” he said. “China certainly can deliver.”

Not everything went right. India announced its top diplomat in Beijing wouldn’t attend after a People’s Liberation Army soldier involved in deadly clashes on the countries’ border participated in the torch relay. That came in addition to the separate U.S.-led boycott over alleged human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region and Hong Kong, backed by major economies such as Australia, Canada and the U.K. 

Some athletes spoke out after competing. A Swedish gold medalist said it was “irresponsible” to let China host given its human rights record, while Gus Kenworthy, a British freeskier, called on the IOC to push harder on such issues after coming eighth in the halfpipe.

Still, China avoided any embarrassing protests — particularly over tennis star Peng Shuai, whose allegations of mistreatment by a former vice premier were wiped by censors last year. 

“The Games illustrated how Chinese diplomacy faces an increasingly uphill battle with the U.S. and its closest allies,” said Neil Thomas, a Chinese politics and foreign policy analyst at Eurasia Group, “But it continues to make progress in the developing world and with some European middle powers.”