Chinese torchbearer at centre of Winter Olympics scandal

·5-min read
On the left is Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside his India counterpart Ram Nath Kovind.
India joined several other countries after announcing a late diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympic Games. Pic: Getty

India has staged a late diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing after China selected a military commander involved in a deadly border clash between the two nations as one of its torchbearers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the Beijing Winter Olympics open overnight as his country tried to turn the page on a build-up overshadowed by human rights concerns, Covid-19 and a US-led diplomatic boycott.

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Fireworks exploded over the "Bird's Nest" as the lattice-shaped stadium took centre stage, just as it did at the 2008 Games, as Beijing becomes the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics.

Hours before the relatively low-key ceremony signalled the official start of the Games, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement from spokesman Arindam Bagchi explaining why it had chosen to become the latest country to boycott China.

“It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicise an event like the Olympics,” Bagchi told reporters at a news conference in New Delhi on Thursday.

Bagchi said India's senior envoy had decided not attend the opening ceremony and will also be absent from the closing ceremony at Beijing's Bird's Nest.

India’s public broadcaster Prasar Bharat subsequently announced that it won't televise coverage of either ceremony.

India's lone athlete at the Games — Alpine skier Arif Khan — will still participate.

Why India chose to boycott

Until this week, India was considering having its top diplomat at its embassy in Beijing attend the games even as several countries like the USA, Australia, Britain and Canada engage in a diplomatic boycott, citing China’s human rights violations, while allowing their athletes to compete.

In November, India had joined Russia in expressing support for the Beijing Games during the BRICS summit — a meeting of large emerging economies.

But Beijing’s move to pick Col. Qi Fabao, a People’s Liberation Army regimental commander who was seriously wounded in the 2020 clash between Indian and Chinese troops, as an Olympic torchbearer riled up New Delhi’s anger.

Fabao is a Chinese soldier who was wounded in a deadly border clash between the countries two years ago.

China’s state-owned Global Times showed Qi on Wednesday jogging while holding the torch, drawing criticism from India's former diplomats and defence experts.

The decision to field Qi as a torchbearer was swiftly denounced by the Indian government, which accused Beijing of politicising the games.

Seen here, China's Qi Fabao participates in the Olympic torch relay.
Qi Fabao participates in the Olympic torch relay. (CNS photo via Reuters)

India’s foreign ministry said it was “regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicise an event like the Olympics,” adding that the Indian Embassy in Beijing would not send its representative to the opening and closing ceremonies.

China and India share a disputed border, called the Line of Actual Control, that separates Chinese and Indian-held territories from the high cold-desert region of Ladakh to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In 1962, this dispute resulted in an armed conflict that ended with a fragile truce. Since then, troops from opposing sides have guarded the undefined mountain border area but agreed not to attack each other with firearms.

A confrontation in June 2020 — their deadliest in decades — sharply changed relations. The rival troops fought with rocks, clubs and their fists in hand-to-hand combat in Galwan Valley along the undemarcated border in Ladakh.

At least 20 Indian troops and four Chinese soldiers were killed.

The high-altitude standoff dramatically altered the already fraught relationship between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Tensions have since persisted despite talks at military, diplomatic and political levels.

This photo shows army officers of India and China hold a meeting at Pangong lake region in Ladakh on the India-China border in February, 2021.
In this photograph provided by the Indian Army, army officers of India and China hold a meeting at Pangong lake region in Ladakh on the India-China border in February, 2021. Pic: AP

Beijing 2022 Games get underway

The opening ceremony was dazzling but less spectacular than the extravaganza 14 years ago.

It got off to a solemn start when eight soldiers slow-marched with the Chinese flag, before the national anthem rang out into the cold night air.

At the end of the ceremony, the Olympic torch was secured to the centre of a giant snowflake, which was then illuminated to become the cauldron and hoisted above the stadium.

One of the final two torchbearers was Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Chinese cross-country skier from the troubled Xinjiang region.

Campaigners say at least one million people from the Muslim Uyghur minority have been incarcerated in "re-education camps" in Xinjiang.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was joined by world leaders including Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who he met with earlier in the day.

After the teams marched into the arena, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach appealed to "all political authorities across the globe", urging them to "give peace a chance".

"In our fragile world, where division, conflict and mistrust are on the rise, we show the world - yes, it is possible to be fierce rivals while at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together," Bach said.

with agencies

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