For Chinese still trapped in the pandemic, the Olympics give a spark of pride

For Bai, the Olympics have been a welcome distraction from these tough realities and a reminder that she and her country are making progress. The last time Beijing hosted the Olympics, in 2008, she didn’t even own a TV. Now she owns an apartment in the capital city’s suburbs.

“Watching the Winter Olympics this year, I really feel that China has become stronger,” she said. “I’m proud to be Chinese.”

Bai’s experiences reflect the wide-ranging emotions of many across China watching the Games. On one hand, the glossy international show has little to do with the exhausting reality of a third year of lockdowns, mass coronavirus testing and closed borders. The Olympics are taking place in a bubble, with the athletes walled off from the rest of Beijing and no tickets sold to China’s general public.

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And yet, many people are looking for distraction and cheer amid the pandemic, and the Games have served that purpose. The throwback comparisons to 2008 have people reflecting on the fact that they, and their country, have become wealthier and worldlier. China’s economy has more than tripled in size, and a massive swath of the population has emerged from poverty into the middle class.

“My ‘Moments’ that night was basically full of five-star red flags,” Chen Han, 19, a sports education major in Changsha, said about his friends’ patriotic social media posts on WeChat Moments during the Opening Ceremonies.

Tian Chang, a 30-year-old Beijing resident, said she felt particularly emotional when China’s Ren Ziwei won the men’s short-track speedskating competition, in a chaotic final dash that made her so nervous she leaped up and mimicked the skaters in front of the TV. “I just felt that we the Chinese people are good at accomplishing the impossible in the face of adversity,” she said.

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Tian said the Beijing Games spurred her to begin learning how to ski.

China is not a democracy, and its domestic press and Internet are censored, which means it has not seen the kind of the vigorous debate typical in host countries over whether the gargantuan cost of the Games is worth it. But public alienation from the glitzy show comes out in more subtle ways, including some people simply not watching the Games, as well as a flood of grass-roots concern in recent days over a woman found chained in a village.

Shortly before the Olympics began, a video went viral on the Chinese Internet of a mother chained by her neck inside a shed outside her home. While the horrifying case had nothing to do with the Olympics, many commentators drew a comparison, saying that the plight of the nation’s poor and powerless must not be forgotten amid the celebration of famous athletes.

“I often feel like I live in a very fragmented world,” one Weibo user commented. “With the Lunar New Year and Winter Olympics, it’s full of song and dance. And yet at the same time, such a horrific thing can happen so easily to an ordinary person.”

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Chinese viewers have not been able to wholly ignore the political clashes surrounding the Olympics, despite state media playing down the protests. The United States and several other countries are staging a diplomatic boycott of the Games, citing China’s human rights violations, especially against members of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

In an apparent retort, Beijing chose a Uyghur cross-country skier to be one of the two final torchbearers for the Opening Ceremonies. The move rankled some domestic audiences. A 27-year-old woman in Shanghai who would give only her surname as Cui said the move felt too political.

“It makes me not want to watch the Winter Olympics because there’s a lot of politics going on here,” she said. “In 2008, they chose Li Ning, a well-known gymnast who has had brilliant achievements. But this girl, who ever has heard of her? Who is she? She’s there just because she’s Uyghur. For me, all these politics are quite annoying.”

More inspiring has been U.S.-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who competed for Team China and has been broadly popular among Chinese audiences as a glamorous symbol of the nation’s growing soft power. At one point shortly after the 18-year-old won gold in the women’s big air event, a third of the 50 trending hashtags on China’s Weibo social media platform were about her.

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“I’ve been chatting with my sisters in a WeChat group, and we’re still chatting today about Eileen Gu’s competition,” said Liu Longyan, 23, a construction company employee in the southern city of Chengdu. “She is really awesome.”

Many children and their parents were among those watching the Olympics in China, with schools assigning it as part of patriotic education.

“My son’s teacher asked him to watch the Olympics Opening Ceremonies, to cultivate patriotic pride and encourage the children to participate in winter sports,” said Zhang Jianqian, 45, a resident of the northern port city of Tianjin.

Chinese education officials have expressed hopes that winter sports can help youngsters build character, as they have grown up in affluence and need an “awareness of struggle,” according to a commentary by Beijing Sport University Chairman Cao Weidong.

The Olympics came this year on the heels of the Lunar New Year, China’s largest annual holiday. For the third year in a row, Chinese officials urged people to stay in place instead of seeing their families to cut down on the risk of coronavirus infection.

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Zhang said he wasn’t able to return to his hometown in Hubei province this year because of the risk of getting caught in a lockdown if a localized outbreak emerged. Pandemic controls have been tight in Tianjin in recent months, partly because of its proximity to Beijing, with the city imposing targeted lockdowns and several rounds of mass testing. In the space of 11 days in January, Zhang was asked to take four coronavirus tests.

Winter sports such as skiing have only begun to become popular in China in recent years. Zhang said his wife and son sometimes go skiing at a resort north of Tianjin, but he has yet to adopt the hobby.