What Are They Thinking?

In February perhaps 20,000 athletes, coaches, officials, broadcasters, and others – including some of the world’s most driven, intense (and mainly young) people from countries around the world – will go to Beijing and surrounding area for the 2022 Winter OIympics.

What are they thinking?

I get why the athletes will go.  If you compete in any of the Olympic sports at a world class level, your entire life is probably scheduled around the four year Olympic cycle.  The crowning achievement of your athletic career, or so you believe, is the Olympic dream, and you may have only one shot at it.  If you don’t peak at the right time, and be your very best in that small window, you may never again have a chance to call yourself an Olympian.

In normal times, there is also the camaraderie of living and competing with your peers from around the world, the adventure of experiencing a new country while being the centre of attention, and the gut feeling of hearing tens of thousands of people in the stands, cheering for you.

While those latter things will mostly be lacking at Beijing, due to Covid, that doesn’t take away from your fundamental need to be there.  When you were seven years old, you had a dream to be at the top of the hill, or at the start line on the ice, or something similar, at the Olympics.  This is your chance. 

How could you give that up?

On the other hand, the societies from which they come – their families, friends, co-workers, fans, and governments – are supposed to actually care about them.  If they do, how could they let their friends, their children, their best and brightest, go to Beijing?

Human Rights

Front and centre in the debate about whether athletes should compete in the Beijing Olympics has been China’s human rights record.  Many people rightly believe that going to China at this time, and allowing China and its leaders to bask in the glory of the world’s attention, is repugnant when the Chinese government is trampling human rights all over the place.

The worst right now may be the Uighurs, essentially forced into concentration camps (sorry, “political education centres”) because they are not sufficiently Chinese.  In northwestern China, the 13 million Uighurs, mostly Muslim and so already a “problem” for the Chinese government, live in a virtual police state.  Measures against the Uighurs include forced labour, involuntary sterilization, arrest and detention, and many other initiatives. 

Is it genocide, as some claim?  No evidence yet of extermination camps, so Premier Xi Jinping probably has a way to go before he can legitimately be compared to Adolf Hitler.  On the other hand, it is clear that he wants the Uighurs to come to heel, and will use any means to achieve that result.

And that is before we even start to talk about the aggressive suppression of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong (a place I am resigned that I will never again visit), or the military belligerence in the seas around China, or the constant threat against Taiwan (see below), or the support of another terrible regime in North Korea, or the economic imperialism in Africa and elsewhere.  China is a bad actor in a lot of ways, but honestly those things seem pretty mild compared to the Uighurs. 

Still…

Of course, those who support the Olympic “movement” point out that the Olympics are supposed to be separate from politics.  It is that one time, every four years, that we lay down our arms and come together without malice or rancour.  It is a celebration of our “oneness”, a rejection of our differences.

Oh, please.

If this were an actual person we know, we would be disgusted, and refuse to go to their house.  We would not want to be hosted by, or associate in any way with, someone like that.

(We would also probably not do business with them, but who do you think supplies many of our consumer products in the West?  Money talks, baby.)

Covid-19

Back to the athletes.  If they can hold their noses and ignore China’s treatment of people inside and outside China, holding their noses won’t protect them from Covid-19. 

Donald Trump wanted to call Covid the “China virus”, for obvious political reasons.  He was a scumbag, but it is not as if he was wrong on this one.  This was a virus from China, despite their denials and obfuscation. 

Further, their stellar record in fighting Covid appears to be the result of two things.  First, if your society doesn’t respect individual rights, it is a lot easier to impose Draconian health measures and make them stick.  Second, if you control all testing, reporting, and other information, your Covid record is whatever you, as a government, want it to be.  The truth does not have to be part of that equation.

Does anyone really believe that yesterday China had 197 new cases of Covid, in the whole country?  Does the Chinese government think that we believe their data?  Seriously?  Perhaps the fact that they claim they did 160 million (exactly) tests yesterday is a clue. 

The actual truth is that the athletes and others going to Beijing have no idea whatsoever how prevalent Covid-19 is in China, and have no way of finding out.  If the situation is similar to other countries, there could be millions of new cases daily, as with Europe.  Worse than that, because there is no reliable information, we have no way of knowing whether the cases they do have are the (supposedly) milder Omicron variant, or the more lethal Delta variant.

To protect the foreigners attending the games, China is implementing what they say are strict procedures to isolate them from harm. 

All those who come to China for the games will have to be fully vaccinated at least fourteen days prior to arrival, for example.  All vaccines apparently qualify, though, so the 600 Russian (sorry, “ROC” wink wink) team members will mostly have the Sputnik V vaccine, officially known as Gamaleya.  While the Russian government claims it has 91-95% efficacy (compared to Pfizer, Moderna and J&J of 91-95%), the data from the studies supporting those numbers has not been released, with the result that it is currently one of the few widely used vaccines not currently approved by the World Health Organization.

Attendees from several other countries that rely on Sputnik V will also have the same suspect protection.

Then we have the athletes and others from countries relying on the Sinovac (Chinese) vaccine (which is approved by WHO), plus the local Chinese residents that will be working in the Olympic village and at the competition venues (including, it should be noted, 1140 medical personnel).  This is really the bulk of the people with whom foreign athletes will interact on a daily basis.  The efficacy rate of Sinovac is somewhere in the range of 51%, as compared to 90%+ for Pfizer and Moderna. 

Worse than that, though, a study released last week showed that individuals vaccinated with Sinovac, including a booster, didn’t have sufficient antibodies to ward off Omicron.  The vaccines used in the West don’t have a great record against Omicron either, but with a booster they at least appear to have 48% efficacy against getting the disease at all, and more than 85% efficacy against severe disease and death, as set out in an Imperial College London study a couple of weeks ago.

The other side of the Covid story at Beijing is the public health measures.  Athletes, coaches and others will be in a “closed loop” for the duration of the time they are there.  They will only be allowed in their living area and in their competition venues.  Everyone inside the loop will be vaccinated (sort of – see above) and tested before entry, and everyone will also be tested daily.

And, there will, they say, be no spectators.  Some preferred individuals may get to be in attendance, one suspects, but otherwise it will only be the competitors, their coaches, trainers, and support staff, and the local staff.  In most cases, athletes will come into contact with no more than a few hundred people outside of their closed loop.

Wait…  A few hundred?

Despite all this stringency, there will in fact be Covid cases, as the organizers freely admit.  When that happens, the affected persons will be sent to an isolation hospital for an indefinite period of time.  They will be tested often (at least daily), and will only be allowed to return to the closed loop, or even go home, when they are both symptom-free and negative tested twice (or more).  If they miss their competition, tough luck.

Further, their close contacts, while allowed to remain in the Olympic village, will be isolated within that area, kept separate from others within their closed loop, and tested more often.  In effect, there will be a closed loop within their closed loop.

Not much like other Olympic games.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that, in China, the government has a quite different view of individual rights than we’re used to.  Test positive and you’ll find that out mighty quick.

The World’s Best Hostages

I’ve saved the best for last.  As we know, Xi Jinping is like the bully down the street when you were a kid.  Remember that guy who, when he didn’t get what he wanted, grabbed your kid brother and said “If you don’t give me that, I’ll punch the kid.” 

Remember him?  That’s Xi. 

Canadians and their athletes should be particularly sensitive to this, since Xi did this to Canada just recently.  When the Canadian government, acting lawfully, arrested Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, the Chinese government determined the appropriate response would be to arrest two Canadian citizens in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, a few days later on trumped up charges (no pun intended).  The “two Michaels”, as they became known, were held hostage for more than a thousand days – almost three years in prison – while the Canadian justice system played out for Meng.  Meng lived comfortably in her Vancouver mansion during this period. 

When she was released, they were released.

Coincidence, of course.  Just ask the Chinese media.

So naturally it makes a lot of sense for countries around the world to send their young people, and their coaches and other support personnel (plus many broadcasters, diplomatic and government visitors, and assorted hangers-on), to Beijing.  There they will be completely within the control of their hosts, a government that not only doesn’t respect individual rights, but openly and without apology engages in hostage-taking.

What could go wrong?

There could be lots of reasons why China might be able to use 10-20,000 high value hostages.  Your imagination can run rampant.  In the few weeks that our hostages are in China, many things could happen in the world that cause the all-powerful Premier Xi to exercise his predilection for hostage dynamics.

Or, maybe the Chinese government doesn’t have to wait and see if something bad happens that warrants using the hostages.  Maybe they can view this as an opportunity, and make something happen.

What I actually fear is that February, 2022 may be the best time in the past ten years, and the next ten years, to unify the rogue Taiwan with the rest of China.  Xi will never have another opportunity like this, and has the potential to cement his legacy as, in his mind, the greatest Chinese leader in history.  He can be the one to reunite China.

Of course, that probably sounds a lot like Dorothy crying “lions and tigers and bears, oh my”.  Until you look at it through Xi’s eyes.

China is in a position today to take back Taiwan through military force.  It has the strength, and is only held back by the risk that other countries more powerful than Taiwan will come to their aid.  Fighting Taiwan would be like swatting a fly.  Fighting Taiwan plus USA, Korea, and other allies could be a bigger problem.

Xi might hope that the USA doesn’t intervene, but there is risk.  The U.S. President, faced with iffy mid-term elections, can’t appear weak.  He is already suspect because of his age.  If he lets China take Taiwan, all other things being equal he is done as President.  Toast.  Just waiting to be beaten in 2024, and able to do nothing in the meantime.

But what happens if there are 10-20,000 hostages in Beijing when China attacks Taiwan?  Do any other countries come to Taiwan’s aid?  The simple answer is almost certainly no. 

Now, before you scoff, play it out. 

First, China won’t simply attack Taipei.  They have to start by engineering an incident that justifies it.  Maybe they claim that one of their ships was fired on by the Taiwanese navy, or something like that.

More likely, they create a real incident that justifies a strong response.  For example, Xi can send a high-ranking member of the Politburo to Taipei on a mission of peace and mutual understanding.  Preferably it is someone Xi would be happy to see out of the way.  China arranges for him to be assassinated while there, and for the blame to be placed on the government of Taiwan. 

No, I’m not writing a novel here.  Remember that we are talking about Xi, who doesn’t believe that there are moral limits involved in achieving what you believe to be legitimate goals.   This guy is the quintessential “end justifies the means” thinker.

Faced with an invasion of Taiwan, under the auspices of a plausible frameup, what will Taiwan’s allies do?  They will have to deal with China closing its borders “due to the military situation”, locking all of the foreigners in Beijing until further notice.  The athletes and others will be treated well, but they will not be allowed to leave “until peace is restored”. 

As I say, China, and Xi, will never have another chance like this again.

In risk analysis, there is a category of “low-probability, high-impact” events, which are different from other events that generate risks.  Think nuclear meltdown.  For that category of event, you take extra precautions, even though, looked at only from a probabilistic point of view, the risk is small.  If something has a 1% chance of happening, but with catastrophic consequences if it does, you may want to take some care.

Sending China thousands of our citizens as hostages creates the potential for a low-probability, high-impact event.  It may not be the wisest thing we’ve ever done.

Conclusion

The Olympics are about money, as we all know.  Despite the billions of dollars involved, however, there are other considerations that, in this case, might be of greater importance. 

Visiting a host whose human rights actions are repugnant, amid a pandemic that is particularly risky in China, and setting up our young people to be hostages to a Machiavellian regime, should all be considerations when our children ask us whether it is safe for them to go to Beijing in February.

  • Jay Shepherd, December 30, 2021
Posted in International Affairs, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments