by Jing Xuan Teng
China’s President Xi Jinping had a rare pandemic-era encounter with a foreign visitor Tuesday when he met with Olympic chief Thomas Bach as the country readies to host the Winter Games.
The meeting is expected to be the first of several for the Chinese president — who has not left the country since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic — as dignitaries including Russian President Vladimir Putin descend on Beijing for the Olympics.
“Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach in Beijing on Tuesday,” read a statement from Xinhua news agency.
State broadcaster CCTV showed the two unmasked leaders sitting metres apart in a large room, surrounded by officials in face masks with the IOC and Chinese flags on display.
Xi promised Bach that China would hold a “simple, safe and splendid Olympics”, according to a CCTV readout of the meeting.
“We are fully confident of ensuring the health and safety of participants, relevant personnel and the Chinese people,” Xi said.
Bach arrived in the city on Saturday and went into a “three-day isolation” ahead of the opening ceremony on February 4, Xinhua said in an earlier report.
An IOC statement said the pair discussed the Covid prevention measures in place and the “excellent state of preparations” for the Games.
Bach also congratulated Xi on achieving his goal of bringing winter sports to more than 300 million people in China, telling him it “is now a winter sports country, and this is the start of a new era for global winter sports”.
Xi last met a visiting head of state in March 2020 when he received Pakistani President Arif Alvi in Beijing.
All his diplomatic meetings since then have been online forums or phone calls.
Other leaders expected to join the Olympics opening ceremony include Pakistan’s Imran Khan.
Since early 2020, China has stuck to a strict zero-Covid policy that includes mass testing and snap lockdowns in response to the slightest hint of an outbreak.
Most visitors from abroad are forced to quarantine for multiple weeks, but different rules are in place for the Olympics.
Participants will fly straight into a “closed loop” bubble in Beijing and are forbidden from interacting with the public.
China on Tuesday reported 15 positive Covid tests among Olympics participants, including 12 detected on arrival in the country.
The IOC said Monday that Beijing organisers were easing their Covid test standards, allowing more athletes to avoid a positive result and continue participating despite having trace amounts of the virus in their bodies.
Beijing hopes to make the Winter Olympics a soft power triumph, though the lead-up has been clouded by a diplomatic boycott from several countries over what Western governments argue are widespread rights abuses by China.
But Bach has insisted on the IOC’s “political neutrality”, even as the organisation drew fire for its video call with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who had briefly disappeared after making sexual assault allegations against a top official.
Bach was criticised after his 30-minute call with Peng on November 21 for failing to make demands concerning her safety.
A statement from the IOC at the time said Peng had “thanked the IOC for its concern about her well-being” and said she preferred to “have her privacy respected at this time”.
The call ended with Bach inviting Peng “for a dinner once he arrives in Beijing next January”.
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