As if the raging coronavirus pandemic is not enough, China faces circumstances that may make it difficult to successfully complete the 17-day Beijing Winter Olympics, which officially began Friday.
Despite the Chinese government's efforts to contain the virus under its radical "zero COVID" policy, infections began to surge in early January, just one month before the opening of the Olympics, fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Now, Russia's massing of troops on the Ukraine border and North Korea's escalating missile activities, along with a "diplomatic boycott" of the games initiated by the United States, threaten to divert world attention from the global sporting event.
To bolster his clout in the nation and secure a controversial third term as leader at the ruling Communist Party's twice-a-decade congress in fall, President Xi Jinping is no doubt eager to make the Winter Olympics a success, diplomatic sources say.
The Beijing-born politician has also been keen to use the Olympics to showcase China's state-of-the-art technology including the "digital yuan" cryptocurrency. But the sources say his ambition cannot be achieved if the event fails to excite people both at home and abroad.
In the end, given the state of the virus outbreak, there is little likelihood of the Olympics being proof of humanity defeating the coronavirus. It is also uncertain how the international and regional security situation would change during the period through Feb. 20.
On Jan. 15, Beijing's municipal government said its first Omicron case was found, weeks after the nation's first community infections with the variant were identified in Tianjin, a city of 14 million that is a key gateway to the capital.
With Omicron spreading across China, organizers announced on Jan. 17 that tickets for the Olympics would not be sold to the general public. That made citizens in Beijing more indifferent to the global sporting event, locals say.
Venues could be at least 30 percent full with select groups of people in spectator seats. So they would not look like last summer's Tokyo Olympics that saw no spectators at almost all venues. Still the scene is not what Xi envisioned, the diplomatic sources said.
Omicron's sudden emergence may have sent a shock wave to a government that had shown confidence that China had effectively brought the virus under control, they said.
Coupled with the move by the United States and its allies to not send senior officials to the games over China's human rights record, the variant spread has dealt a heavy blow to Xi's attempt to hold the Olympics in a "complete form," the sources added.
China has also been struggling to shake off the bad image attached to it after Chinese female tennis star Peng Shuai abruptly confessed in November that she had been forced by a former vice premier into having sex, and disappeared from public view for weeks.
As fears about Peng's safety linger, the Xi leadership appears to believe that the issue has put a damper on the celebratory mood of the Olympics and inflamed anti-China sentiment among democracies, the sources said.
Even during the Olympics, China might be beset by international events that hamper the games' success, such as a Russian incursion into Ukraine and North Korea's potential resumption of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
Russia's military buildup near the border comes as President Vladimir Putin has demanded that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the West's key military alliance, pull back troops and weapons from Eastern Europe.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in late January that the Beijing Olympics could affect the timing of a Russian invasion, as China could be upset to see it happen while the Olympics are ongoing.
But the sources said China is skeptical Putin would refrain from invading Ukraine until the end of the Olympics, given the history that Russia sent troops to Georgia, a former Soviet republic, on the same day of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
As for North Korea, the nuclear-armed country has expressed support for the latest Olympics, even as it decided not to send athletes to the event while it remains wary about risks of infection amid the pandemic.
Nevertheless, North Korea has test-fired projectiles almost twice a week since the beginning of 2022, including a long-range ballistic missile and hard-to-intercept weapons, raising regional tensions in the run-up to the Olympics.
Pyongyang has also recently hinted at restarting nuclear and ICBM tests in an apparent bid to bring the United States back to negotiations over denuclearization and sanctions relief.
For years, China has called for the lifting of the sanctions against North Korea on the grounds that it has suspended nuclear and ICBM tests. If North Korea resumes them this month, Xi would lose face and the Olympics would be disrupted, pundits said.
It is hard to imagine China and North Korea not communicating closely on the issue. But with its economy in a serious downturn as a result of the pandemic, fears are that Pyongyang may dare to carry out such tests soon to raise the stakes for the United States.
Xi strongly hopes North Korea, which depends on China for over 90 percent of its trade, will not intensify its military provocations against the United States in February, when Pyongyang commemorates major anniversaries every year, the pundits said.
With its advanced information and networking technology, China has viewed the Beijing Olympics as a window of opportunity to promote the use of digital yuan, as it has been trying to enhance the global status of its currency, known as the renminbi.
But with Omicron and other uncertainties surrounding the games, a scholar familiar with the situation in East Asia cautioned against China's currency ambition. "The Beijing Olympics may ultimately undermine the credibility of China, which would prevent the yuan from becoming the key international currency."