Its destiny is now in the control of one party, one führer and one ideology
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE BEIJING WINTER Olympics will be remembered as the most divisive games since the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. And they are no less ominous. Just as the 1936 Games strengthened German Führer Adolf Hitler and unleashed his wanton expansionism, the 2022 Games could further embolden Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, whose own expansionism has already extended from the South China Sea and Hong Kong to the Himalayas.
In recent years, some in the West and even China have compared Xi to Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler”. Fascism with Chinese characteristics is indeed taking root. With ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ enshrined in the national constitution and turned into the central doctrine guiding the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s destiny is now in the control of one party, one führer and one ideology.
The 2022 Games, like the 1936 Games, proceeded after an international movement demanding their boycott collapsed. To be sure, a number of Western countries, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and the US, refused to send officials to Beijing for the Winter Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies to protest the Xi regime’s human rights abuses. But such ‘diplomatic boycotts’ are essentially symbolic as athletes from those countries are participating in the Games.
The US is undeniably the No 1 sports nation in the world. It could have undermined the credibility of Hitler’s Olympic Games or Xi’s Olympic Games by deciding not to send its athletes and leading a wider Western boycott. But in both cases, it chose not to undercut the athletic significance of the games.
There are striking parallels between the two games. Before the 1936 Games, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp had been established and Hitler’s army had marched into the demilitarised Rhineland. Likewise, the 2022 Games follow Xi’s genocide in Xinjiang, including the continued detention of more than a million people in a Muslim gulag, and China’s expansionism across Asia.
It was in 2015 that Beijing defeated Almaty (Kazakhstan) to win the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Just in the period since 2015, China, among other things, has established forward military bases on human-made islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang gulag, militarised the Himalayan borderlands (and encroached on Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese territories), weaponised debt and gobbled up Hong Kong.
At home, Xi has established a globally unparalleled techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security has overtaken the country’s massive military budget. An increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing.
Having built a personality cult around himself, Xi is not just highly image-conscious; he is also increasingly intolerant of criticism, even if tinged with humour. Any scabrous depiction of Xi can land a person in jail. For example, an ethnic Korean living in northeast China disappeared into police custody in 2016 after posting a selfie in which he wore a T-shirt with several satirical nicknames for Xi, including “Xitler”. And in 2019, a student who, while studying in the US, had tweeted a cartoon showing Xi as Winnie the Pooh, the fictional bear, was jailed for six months on his return to China for summer vacation.
Under Xi, China has emerged as a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Thanks to Xi’s scofflaw actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. According to a global survey, unfavourable views of China are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.
Make no mistake: just as other powers’ appeasement emboldened Hitler’s expansionism, leading to World War II, the international failure to impose tangible costs for China’s rogue actions under Xi Jinping is likely to beget more aggression and human rights abuses. Indeed, the West’s current business-as-usual approach to China is tantamount to appeasement
But instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his renegade actions. And the risk is growing that Xi’s expansionism could make Taiwan its next target.
Xi—like Hitler in 1936—employed his country’s considerable international leverage to ensure the Games were not disrupted or undermined. Xi’s regime even lobbied US businesses, warning them that they could not expect to make money in China if they tacitly endorsed boycott calls.
CHINA SHOWS ITS TRUE COLOURS TO INDIA—AND THEY’RE NOT PRETTY
The torch relay for Xi’s Olympic Games prominently featured one torchbearer, a Chinese military officer who led the ambush killing of 20 unarmed Indian troops in June 2020. The Olympics are intended to promote “a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”. The elevation as a national hero at the Olympics of a regimental commander who masterminded a cowardly attack is a telling commentary on the tactics and values of the CCP and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
China does not have a national military; rather the party has a military. Contrast that with Pakistan (China’s closest ally) where the army has a country. The PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation.
What is the PLA’s main mission? Its No 1 task is to keep the communist regime in power, as the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said in a report released three years ago. The PLA, the report said, “exists to guarantee the CCP regime’s survival above all else.” In other words, for the PLA, serving the party takes precedence over serving the nation.
So, the PLA’s launch of a surprise and still-continuing aggression against India in April 2020 was designed to serve the interests of the CCP and its leader, Xi.
The CCP’s objectives against India go beyond the land-grabs the PLA made in Ladakh through its April 2020 stealth incursions. Geopolitically, the aggression has sought, below the threshold of overt war, to bring India to heel and stymie any anti-China coalition, thus advancing China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia. The CCP’s longer-term goal appears to be to dismember India in league with Pakistan.
As in the South China Sea, the Chinese aggression against India has centred on a mix of conventional and irregular warfare tactics. But while Xi has managed to change the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without the PLA firing a shot, applying the same strategy against India has only yielded a dangerous Himalayan military stalemate. India has more than matched Chinese military deployments.
His strategic miscalculation notwithstanding, Xi hasn’t given up. China’s frenzied Himalayan military buildup—from building new warfighting facilities along the frontier to forward deploying artillery, missiles and bombers—is aimed at making India buckle under the spectre of war so that China can win without fighting.
In fact, as the honouring of the ‘killer’ PLA officer as an Olympic torchbearer illustrated, the CCP does not believe in fair play. The furtive Chinese encroachments on the Indian borderlands in Ladakh occurred as India, enforcing a stringent national lockdown, was preoccupied with battling China’s most infamous global export—the Covid-19 virus.
The truth is that, without the element of surprise, China is not capable of dominating India in a military confrontation. In the Galwan Valley clashes of mid-2020, the Indian troops bravely fought back after the PLA ambush attack, inflicting heavy Chinese fatalities in hand-to-hand combat. These were the first PLA troops killed in action outside United Nations peacekeeping operations in over four decades.
Xi was so embarrassed by this outcome that, whereas India quickly honoured its 20 fallen as martyrs, China has still not admitted its precise death toll, other than belatedly honouring four slain soldiers and a wounded officer more than eight months after the clashes. Xi’s regime, however, arrested at least six Chinese bloggers and jailed one who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo for saying China has hidden its death toll.
In keeping with his regime’s preference for asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, Xi initiated his aggression in a way he thought China could win without fighting. Despite its blustery propaganda, his regime today is keenly aware that, if it initiates war, the PLA is in no position to decisively defeat India’s battle-hardened armed forces. China’s stepped-up psychological operations and information war to undermine India’s will to challenge its aggression are going nowhere.
China has defended its own violation of the Olympic spirit by feting as a national hero and Olympic torchbearer the PLA officer who led the unprovoked attack on Indian soldiers. Just as Hitler sought to camouflage his persecution of Jews by permitting one Jewish athlete to join the German team, Xi has tried to whitewash his Xinjiang genocide with a Uyghur skier as the face of the 2022 Games
India, says the Indian Army chief, is at its “highest level” of military readiness and, if war is imposed on it, “we will come out victorious.” General MM Naravane has also said that Indian forces will remain forward deployed until China agrees to implement a sequential process of disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction.
The war China unleashed on India in 1962 lasted 32 days. By contrast, the current India-China military standoffs have entered the 21st month in multiple areas, thus constituting the longest period of Sino-Indian military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbour in the early 1950s by occupying the then-independent Tibet.
Since the Galwan Valley clashes, China has been raising new militia units comprising local Tibetan youths for high-altitude Himalayan warfare, according to Indian intelligence assessments. The jarring paradox is that, at a time when it is working to stamp out Tibetan culture and identity, Xi’s regime has turned to the persecuted Tibetans to beef up its border strength against India, thereby implicitly acknowledging that not all Han Chinese troops may be ready for high-altitude warfare. But can the newly recruited Tibetan militiamen trust a regime that is destroying their culture and identity?
While India has stood up to the Chinese aggression by locking horns in tense military standoffs, despite the risk of a fullscale war, it still doesn’t appear to have a strategy to get China to roll back its encroachments. India, in fact, has fallen back to a very defensive position.
Despite the imperative to create incentives and disincentives to influence China’s conduct, India has shied away from substantive action. This underscores the country’s risk-averse strategic culture, which promotes a reactive and passive mode.
India’s battle-hardened air and ground forces may have a qualitative edge over the PLA. After Indian Army patrols in early May of 2020 discovered that Chinese troops had encroached on and occupied several Ladakh border areas, India could have undertaken military counteraction in Ladakh or elsewhere. Yet, despite sufficient force capability and contingency plans, India failed to stage pre-emptive action, other than to seize the Kailash Heights—a highly strategic area it later imprudently vacated.
India has also failed to exercise the option of imposing calibrated trade and diplomatic sanctions to mount pressure on China to roll back its land grabs in Ladakh and halt its frenzied militarisation of the Himalayas, including creating militarised ‘civilian’ villages in disputed border areas.
Instead, to Beijing’s delight, India has been engaged in lengthy negotiations with the aggressor. These negotiations have turned into a drawn-out and treacherous slog.
To compound matters, India has allowed China, despite its aggression, to rake in growing surpluses from a booming bilateral trade. In 2021, China-India trade reached an all-time high of $125.7 billion, with Chinese exports jumping 46.2 per cent. As a result, China’s bilateral trade surplus ($69.4 billion) last year overtook India’s total defence budget.
China has used the endless talks to consolidate the gains of its aggression. It refuses to pull back from Depsang, Hot Springs, Gogra and Demchok or return to the pre-April 2020 positions in the Galwan Valley.
Maintaining the current rival military buildups, which involve units from hundreds of miles away, is both expensive and logistically challenging. However, by tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier, China could seek to gain a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. China’s opening of a maritime front would mean India’s strategic encirclement by that communist behemoth.
Just since 2015, China has established forward military bases on human-made islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang Gulag, militarised the Himalayan borderlands (and encroached on Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese territories), weaponised debt and gobbled up Hong Kong
It is possible, though, that—as with the 1962 war—China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.
In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, fuelling anti-China sentiment in India and driving Indian military modernisation. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.
WILL THE 2022 GAMES, LIKE THE 1936 GAMES, COME BACK TO HAUNT THE WORLD?
The 24th Winter Olympics in Beijing opened under the shadow of the China-originating Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year. The pandemic’s devastating impacts are a reminder of the international costs of Xi’s despotism.
The world still does not know whether Covid-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.
More ominously, a massive coverup in China to obscure the origins of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterising them as “origin-tracing terrorism”. Instead, it has peddled conspiracy theories.
As Xi’s Olympic Games began, China warned foreign athletes not to “violate the Olympic spirit” by speaking out on political issues. Yet it has defended its own gross violation of the Olympic spirit by feting as a national hero and Olympic torchbearer the PLA officer who led the unprovoked attack on Indian soldiers.
For the CCP, sport and politics have long been inseparable. From its boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne (Australia) to its more recent bullying tactics against America’s NBA, England’s Premier League and others, the CCP has treated sport as politics by other means. It has used threats of withdrawing lucrative sport contracts, broadcast deals and sponsorship opportunities to buy silence on its human rights record. Indeed, by picking as an Olympic torchbearer a local PLA commander who was behind the bloody clashes with Indian soldiers, China showed that it mixes politics and sport better than any other country.
Another torchbearer for Xi’s Olympic Games was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the controversial director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO led by Tedros was not only complicit in China’s Covid-19 coverup; it made important concessions to Beijing that may have compromised the search for the virus’ origins. Yet, thanks to Western support, Tedros has been assured a second five-year term, with his re-election in May becoming a mere formality.
Aggression and expansionism have defined the tenure of Xi, who is seeking to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire. Xi has used the pandemic as an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his neo-imperialist agenda.
Yet, since Joe Biden entered the White House, US pressure on China has somewhat eased, including on unravelling the origins of the Covid-19 virus. Containment of Russia and competition with China might be the leitmotif of Biden’s foreign policy, in keeping with what he told CBS’s 60 Minutes in October 2020: Russia is “the biggest threat to America” and China “the biggest competitor”.
The contrast between Biden’s responses to the military threats Ukraine and India face could not be starker: Biden has turned Russia’s troop buildup near the borders with Ukraine into a major international crisis (despite Kyiv and Moscow both insisting that a Russian invasion isn’t imminent), yet he hasn’t uttered a word on the bigger Himalayan military buildup by China that could unleash war on America’s strategic partner India.
The Biden administration, despite its outreach to China having gone nowhere, remains wary of lending public support to India against China’s aggression. Former US President Donald Trump’s administration had no such hesitation in siding with India. After India discovered China’s stealth border encroachments in early May of 2020, the then US Secretary of State, Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor repeatedly called out China for its aggression against India. The Biden administration has been more guarded in extending support to India.
Take the US State Department’s February 3rd daily press briefing in which India-Russia and India-China relations came up: The spokesperson referred to Russia’s “unprovoked potential aggression” against Ukraine, but on China’s aggression and huge military buildup against India, he began by calling for “direct dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the border disputes”—disputes that China has created to justify its expansionism.
Make no mistake: Just as other powers’ appeasement emboldened Hitler’s expansionism, leading to World War II, the international failure to impose tangible costs for China’s rogue actions is likely to beget more aggression and human rights abuses. Indeed, the West’s current business-as-usual approach to China is tantamount to appeasement.
Xi’s Olympic Games are an insult to every Uyghur, every Tibetan, every jailed Hong Kong democracy activist and every imprisoned Chinese political dissident.
Xi has taken a page out of the 1936 Berlin Olympics playbook: Just as Hitler sought to camouflage his segregation and persecution of Jews by permitting one Jewish athlete to join the German team, Xi has tried to whitewash his Xinjiang genocide by presenting a Uyghur skier as the face of the 2022 Games.
In 1936, the inclusion of Jewish fencer Helene Mayer in the German team not only ended international calls for a boycott of the Games but also allowed Hitler to project the image of a peace-loving statesman. Xi, for his part, opened the 2022 Games with peace doves and an obscure Uyghur skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as the star of the opening ceremony. As the ceremony reached its spectacular denouement, she joined a male Han Chinese athlete in lighting the Olympic flame. Chinese state media quickly declared that Yilamujiang had “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang”.
Let us be clear: If Xi’s China stays on its present path, open conflict with the West and with its neighbours, from Japan to India, would become inevitable.
China has long used its market power and US corporate greed to get American businesses and officials to do its bidding. Wall Street remains its powerful ally, which partly explains why Xi’s expansionism has largely been cost-free for Beijing.
Today, some of the biggest American corporations—from Coca-Cola and Visa to Intel and Procter & Gamble—are the top sponsors of Xi’s Olympic Games, which Western human rights organisations have dubbed the “Genocide Games”. As The Wall Street Journal aptly put it, “US companies are embracing social responsibility at home but sponsoring the Games in a country where the government is accused of atrocities. They may be underestimating the reputational risks”.
Three years after Hitler’s Olympic Games, World War II began. Will Xi’s Olympic Games similarly come back to haunt the world? Buoyed by the success of the Games, Xi could embark on fresh repression and expansionism.