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The Winter Olympics in a divided world

The Winter Olympics in a divided world
The Winter Olympics in a Divided World | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and a happy start of the week to you. Got your Quick Take to get you going on a Monday, and why not talk about the Olympics, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, so different from the Summer Olympics that they hosted back in 2008, when the American president was there, and was enormously impressed, and this was China coming out onto the world stage, and seen as a global leader. Though the presumption in the West was still as they got wealthier and more powerful, and we let them into global leadership roles, including hosting the Olympics, they would eventually become more of a free market and more democratic. And of course, that was wrong.

In fact, that was probably the single most wrong thing, most wrong view that was held over the past couple of decades by the foreign policy establishment of the West, irrespective of what side of the aisle you're on. But anyway, here we are in 2022, and it is a much more divided world. It is a much more geopolitically fractious world, and it's a world where a lot of people are saying and saying things that are pretty unhappy about Beijing hosting this Winter Olympics. People thought it was going to be very geopolitically fraught. So far, that's not been the case. It's been more or less Olympics as pandemic usual, which means no crowds kind of lockdown, but also means not a lot really happening on the political front.

So there have been a handful of diplomatic boycotts of the Olympics by the United States and a few allies. Most Europeans chose not to go along. The Japanese chose not to go along. Countries like Australia, for example, the UK have. And then the surprise on that front, India, but this was really self-inflicted by the Chinese government. The Indians were planning on sending a delegation, and then the Chinese government decided to include among the torchbearers a Chinese soldier that had been injured in the territorial dispute up in the Himalayas between India and China, and actual fighting between the two sides, which the Indian see as overwhelmingly having been precipitated by the Chinese. So once that happened, the Indians said, "We're out."

But I mean, frankly, the fact that the Chinese felt confident enough to do that, the fact that the Chinese felt confident enough to have an ethnic Uyghur lighting the Olympic flame, I mean, these are signs of confidence, signs of, we don't care what you say or do, the West. And frankly, no athletes decided to boycott, and no corporate sponsoring decided to boycott. And so you put all of that together, and well over 90% of the countries of the world did not join in a diplomatic boycott. So I think the Chinese government feels pretty comfortable in all that. Where they feel much less comfortable is how this closed-loop Olympics is going to work, and whether or not they can ensure, first of all, minimum case spread inside the Olympics itself, therefore minimum disruption of the Olympic events. So far, reasonably good marks on that. Probably B+, A-.

And also most importantly, can they ensure that there is no spread from the Olympics into the Chinese population at large? So far, that looks good. Certainly no reported cases. If it was a very small number of cases, I doubt we would find out about it. The Chinese government would have high incentive not to make that known. But nonetheless, so far, if you are the Chinese leadership, you're feeling pretty good about the way all of this is going on.

I will say, by the way, I've watched a little bit of the Olympics. I'm not one of these people that says, "Oh, there's a diplomatic boycott, and so we should cut everything off." First of all, I don't believe in punishing the athletes who have spent their entire lives training for this moment, in most cases, and taking it away because we are politically unhappy with the Chinese government. Seems like they should not be the people that suffer. I mean, if the average American isn't willing to do without Chinese goods on their table because they're a little bit cheaper, then I'm sure as hell, I'm not willing to talk to hundreds of American athletes and say, "Sorry, you've got no shot at what you've prepared your entire life for." So I don't think that's fair.

And I also like to believe that sports are international sports, et cetera, one of those places where we try to put politics as much aside as possible. That doesn't mean I'd be in favor of the North Koreans hosting the Olympics, for example. It doesn't mean, I think none of this stuff matters. Of course, it does. But when it comes to China, it's such an important relationship, and of course, is a relationship that is among close to economic and technological equals, which in reality limits the ability of the Americans to dictate how the Chinese should behave very different than the US-Mexico relationship, for example, or others. And that's just reality, irrespective of whether or not I'm happy about it. But I mean, you still can't deny reality.

And I also think that it's important, given the interdependence in the relationship, to focus areas of conflict on those that we need to have, like on Chinese theft of intellectual property, or like on massive human rights abuses like with the Uyghurs, which the Americans consider to be act of genocide. I'm all in favor of the sanctions against those companies that are engaged in slave labor, or otherwise benefiting from that unconscionable series of decisions that the Chinese government had taken against their own citizens. But that's very different from saying, "I want to see the Olympics get boycotted."

I haven't watched all that much, in part because I'm busy, but I did see a little bit of the opening ceremony because I wanted to see how the international media was covering it. And I would say it's been a difficult needle to thread, but they've mostly given the fact that they're there. They certainly aren't just saying things the Chinese government would like. I mean, whether I saw NBC coverage, and I've seen some international coverage, and generally, I would say they're doing a reasonably down the straight and narrow job of, "We're not politics correspondents, we're sports correspondents, we're entertainment correspondent, but we are going to present the honest reality around the controversy here.” And the controversy is real.

And then beyond that, I watched the curling between the US and Canada, the mixed curling. The Americans got smoked. I was a little sad about that. I like curling. I was very disappointed with the uniforms. Usually, the uniform is very good. I also like curling because it feels to me like the one Olympic sport that if I just stopped being a political scientist and dedicated five years of my life at nothing but curling, I would have a shot of being on an Olympics team somewhere. Maybe not the US. I might need dual citizenship, but I mean, Honduras doesn't have a curling team. This feels like an opportunity. Furthermore, I don't know why I came up with Honduras. Just felt like a place that wouldn't necessarily have a curling team watch. I'm going to check it out, and they're going to have one. I'm going to seriously embarrassed, but I'm feeling good about it, feeling good about it.

And finally, I just say that the big story, of course, that's come out the Olympics so far, if you're a political scientist who is watching the news, was Putin at the opening ceremony. And here, I do feel pretty strongly that the Russia-China relationship is increasingly becoming an alliance, because the Chinese see American behavior in Asia, diplomatic, economic security, the creation of the Quad, AUKUS, the rest as very analogous to the way the Russians have for decades now perceived the United States and behavior with NATO in Eastern Europe. And so I do think that as the Chinese, we're unhappy with Russia's revisionism. With Russia, "I want to blow up and undermine the global order," China is increasingly aligning with that Russian perspective. Long term, it's a dangerous thing for the world. It's certainly not a good thing for the Americans and American allies, whether in the Atlantic or across the Pacific. But it is meaningful. It is real, and the joint statement between the Chinese and the Russians on Ukraine certainly implied a level of Chinese alignment with Russian demands about Ukraine and the European security system.

I will caveat that with saying that China has never recognized Crimea as part of Russia, and China still favors a diplomatic resolution through the Minsk dialogues of the occupied territory of the Donbas. So they're only going so far. They don't want to fight. They want a diplomatic resolution, but they're putting their finger on the scale of the Russians, and this certainly helps Putin to a degree, as well as willingness of China to invest more, trade more with the Russians and the like in the run up to a couple of very critical weeks of negotiations between the Russians, the Americans, the French, the Germans, and the rest of NATO.

So that's where we are, and I am glad that the athletes are able to participate in their life dream. And for those of you that are watching, I hope you find it all entertaining. And for the rest of us, let's get on with the week. Talk to you all soon. Be good.

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