The international political disputes and human rights concerns surrounding the Beijing Winter Olympics have not bothered the Chinese, who have been closely following their favorite athletes, copping near-impossible event tickets and scouring stores for dwindling merchandise of the popular Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen.
Strict Covid-19 protocols have limited access to ceremonies and competitions and muted the excitement and economic boost the Olympics usually draw. Despite the unusual circumstances, Chinese fans watching from home have reacted with pride to the nation’s theatrical performances and athletic showing — the country has so far won five medals, including a gold by Eileen Gu, an American-born freestyle skier with a Chinese mother.
But some, like Karri Wang, a 30-year-old cryptocurrency and equity investor who started snowboarding four years ago, believe they’ve missed the rare chance of being in the stands to watch the Games. As the pandemic dragged on, it became clear that getting into the closed loop of tightly regulated venues or obtaining a limited-release ticket would be out of reach for most.
“If I didn’t have a day job, I’d definitely be in the bubble,” said Wang, a sentiment that he added was shared by friends in his snowboarding club. “We really want to be there, to be honest, regardless of the price.”
Tana Zhang, a 32-year-old from Shanghai, posted on social media three times looking for tickets to see the opening ceremony or Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu compete. Though a few friends said they might have access to tickets through their companies, she was ultimately deterred by strict requirements for attendance, including quarantines before and after the event.
“I don’t quite think it’s absolutely necessary, but that’s the rule and we just have to play by the book,” Zhang said. “You can imagine how frustrated I am. But this is life.”
The event has given Beijing the distinction of being the only city to host both the Summer and Winter games. Though last week’s opening ceremony was less of a blockbuster spectacle than the one that kicked off the 2008 Summer Olympics, it inspired enthusiasm and emotional reactions from viewers online, who saw it as a tribute to China’s unique beauty.
“An entire nationality just bursting with pride! Love my China,” one user on the country’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo wrote alongside photos of the event. “I’m so moved I don’t know what to say,” another commenter posted.
Such nationalistic fervor has been on the rise in recent years, much of it propelled by President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. At the same time, the country’s leadership is contending with an economic slowdown, high income inequality and a stagnating middle class, all of which have fueled discontent in some quarters at a moment the Beijing Games were meant to showcase China’s prowess to the world.
Criticism of the party or Xi’s projects — he was deeply involved in planning the Games — is often approached with caution. Still, not everyone on social media was so effusive about the opening ceremony: “To tell the truth,” one post said, “it was really pretty average, some scenes were grand, the conception was brilliant, but on the whole it didn’t have the shock of the 08 Olympics.”
Missing from much of the domestic discourse, and a testament to the power of state propaganda, is the political controversy that has defined the Winter Olympics on the international stage.
Countries including the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia have imposed a diplomatic boycott of the Games to protest China’s human rights abuses, including its treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Much of the world has also condemned Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations and civil liberties in Hong Kong.
The Olympics have also renewed attention on Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who attended several events and met with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Saturday. Peng last year accused a former high-ranking Chinese government official of sexual assault, then disappeared from public life, igniting concerns over her safety. During a tightly controlled interview at the Games with French newspaper L’Equipe, Shuai said she never accused anyone of assault.
In the opening ceremony, China appeared to address recent political criticism. A Chinese flag was passed hand to hand across the stadium by representatives of the country’s 56 ethnic groups. One of the athletes chosen to light the Olympic cauldron was the Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang. A lost dove that was led back to the glowing flock drew parallels on social media to Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers part of its territory.
Many overseas spectators saw provocation in such displays. Chinese viewers saw unity.
“We all want to get connected,” said Wang, the cryptocurrency investor. “I think that really touches everybody.”
China has denied the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang and elsewhere, and has accused the U.S. of spreading lies in a smear campaign against Beijing. Olympic athletes have been warned against political statements or protests during the Games over risk of retribution.
“I don’t think it is a focus for the general public,” Beijing resident David Han said. “For us, it’s really simple: We like to see the event happen smoothly and see our athletes get medals.”
Chinese citizens have rejoiced as their athletes have nabbed three gold medals and two silver so far in the competition. A particular outpouring of support has engulfed fan favorite Gu, the 18-year-old free skier who won gold during her Olympic debut Tuesday. In the U.S., the fast-rising star has become a controversial figure for her decision to compete for China. Gu fielded numerous questions about the status of her U.S. citizenship after her win, none of which she answered directly.
Local excitement has also led to a buying frenzy for keepsakes of the official Olympic mascot, a rotund panda in a bodysuit named Bing Dwen Dwen. Customers have camped out and lined up outside merchandise stores for hours hoping to snag the plush toy, and the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee has asked factories to increase production after supplies started running out.
Traditionally a strong competitor in the Summer Games, China is less experienced in the icy worlds of skiing, snowboarding and skating. As part of its bid to host the Winter Olympics, China set a goal of getting 300 million people into winter sports, an achievement it said it accomplished this year.
When Han, 29, sat down to watch the opening ceremony on television with his wife, he was heartened to see the celebration of winter sports. It was a validation of his own interest in skiing over the last decade, having grown up in China’s northeast, where frigid winters are common.
“From very young, we tend to be on the snow and ice. It’s kind of our thing,” he said.