China Power

Who’s Coming to the Beijing Olympics?

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Who’s Coming to the Beijing Olympics?

The list of attendees underscores the political — rather than sporting — significance of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Who’s Coming to the Beijing Olympics?
Credit: Depositphotos

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced that China’s President Xi Jinping will attend the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4. Xi will play host to leaders from 25 other countries, who are set to attend the Opening Ceremony, a welcome banquet, and “relevant bilateral activities” from February 4 to February 6.

More importantly, Hua included a list of which foreign leaders are coming to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.

The full list of leaders who will attend, in alphabetical order by country: Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Javad oglu Ahmadov, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Chairman of the Council of Ministers Zoran Tegeltia, Cambodia’s King Norosom Sihamoni, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov, Luxembourg’s Grand Duke Henri, Monaco’s Prince Albert II, Mongolia’s Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic, Singaporean President Halimah Yacob, South Korea’s Speaker of the National Assembly Park Byeong-seug, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, UAE’s Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, and Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

From international organizations, attendees include International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The question of who would go to the Opening Ceremony acquired heavy political symbolism after the United States announced it was instituting a “diplomatic boycott” over human rights concerns. “The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on December 6.

Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Lithuania, and the U.K. followed suit. A few other countries, including the Netherlands and New Zealand, said they would not be sending officials to the Games in Beijing, but cited pandemic-related concerns as the reason. Other countries, like France and Germany, hedged and refused to commit to a boycott, but are tellingly absent from Hua’s list.

Given the politicization of attendance at the Beijing 2022 Olympics, it’s interesting to note which countries tried to walk the line between the two camps. South Korea, for instance, decided against joining the diplomatic boycott, but is sending a lower-level dignitary in its National Assembly speaker (as opposed to President Moon Jae-in or even Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum). Likewise, Thailand is not sending Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or King Maha Vajiralongkorn; instead, the Thai royal family will be represented by the king’s younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn. Singapore, meanwhile, is sending a suitably high-level dignitary in President Halimah, but it’s notable that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is not making the trip.

On the other hand, China amassed an impressive list of attendees from Central Asia – all five presidents will come – and the Middle East (although Iran is a curious absence, given growing ties between Tehran and Beijing). In that sense as well, the guest list is a sign of the political nature of the Olympics. Countries from the Central Asia and the Middle East are not known as winter sports powerhouses, so there’s little reason for their leaders to attend the Winter Olympics aside from making a political statement about their relations with the host.

Take Central Asia as an example. Turkmenistan has never sent athletes to the Winter Olympics. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan normally send one or two athletes to the Winter Olympics (and Tajikistan is reportedly not sending anyone this year). Uzbekistan typically is a bit better represented but has never sent more than seven athletes to the Winter Olympics (a record set in 1994) and will only send one this year. Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that seems to care about the Winter Olympics, sending between 29 and 60 athletes to each Winter Games since 1994. Kazakhstan has 34 athletes set to compete in Beijing.

With that context in mind, it’s clear that the Central Asian leaders aren’t going to Beijing to cheer on their athletes. Instead, their attendance must have deep diplomatic meaning, as there are plenty of factors that would have otherwise compelled Central Asian presidents to stay home. Aside from the continuing fallout from Kazakhstan’s “Bloody January,” this week saw fresh flashes of gunfire on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. That the leaders are all making the trek to Beijing — just over a week after holding a virtual summit with Xi — speaks volumes about the political importance vested in attending, despite China’s repeated insistence that the Olympics should not be politicized.

In a similar vein, Saudi Arabia is making its Winter Olympics debut, with just one skier set to go, yet will have its Crown Prince on the sidelines. Qatar and the UAE have never competed in the Winter Olympics. Egypt has only sent an athlete once, in 1984. All told, of the 25 countries sending leaders to the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony, only Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Poland, Russia, South Korea, and Uzbekistan have ever won medals in the Winter Olympics.

For many of these leaders, then, the main attraction is clearly not the sporting events. Instead they are keen on solidifying relationships with China – and eager to seize a rare chance to rub elbows in person with Xi Jinping. Xi has not traveled abroad since January 2020, just before the pandemic burst into international news, and he doesn’t host many visitors, either. While Foreign Minister Wang Yi has kept up a steady, if subdued, stream of visit with counterparts, Xi has been exclusively holding virtual summits. The last foreign leader Xi met with in person was Mongolia’s then-President Battulga Khaltmaa, in late February 2020.

Even Putin, arguably Xi’s closest partner on the international stage, has had to settle for virtual meetings, with the last in-person summit held in June 2019 in Russia. At the most recent Putin-Xi virtual summit, in December 2021, the Russian president remarked on the opportunity coming up: “I expect that we will finally be able to meet in-person in Beijing next February.”

Catherine Putz contributed reporting.