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As if there aren’t enough sources of Sino-U.S. friction already, an emerging new irritant may soon outpace the rest: the growing calls for a boycott of Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics.
The games are still 10 months away — a period that may feel even longer given the uncertainty surrounding the current phase of the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s not too early for the event to turn into a flash point. Critics of China’s ruling Communist Party — including a coalition of more than 180 human rights organizations — argue that the regime’s record of human rights abuses and geopolitical malfeasance ought to deprive it of the right to burnish its image with a spectacle like the Olympics.
“Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Olympics in 2015, the same year it cracked down on lawyers and activists across China,” Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote earlier this year. “Since then, it has detained journalists; harassed and attacked activists and dissidents even outside China’s borders; shut down nongovernmental organizations; demolished Christian churches, Tibetan temples and Muslim mosques; persecuted, sometimes to death, believers in Falun Gong; and sharply increased its control of media, the Internet, universities and publishers.”
“I don’t think we should have any American go and participate in the ‘Genocide Olympics,’” former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said during an event last week. He was referring to reports surrounding the rape and mass sterilization of ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh women by state authorities in China’s Xinjiang region, which some experts and the U.S. State Department say amount to genocide.
An Olympic boycott has become a popular cause among Republicans. “The world is watching our next move,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.).
“Given China’s atrocious human rights record, mendacious mishandling of COVID-19 during the outbreak’s early stages, and external hostility, the games should be moved,” argued a policy paper from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which also insisted the United States could leverage international concern over the Olympics to force “a course correction” within Beijing’s ruling clique.
The Biden administration offered somewhat mixed messaging this week. First, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that a boycott of the Winter Olympics was “something that we certainly wish to discuss” with like-minded allies. But the State Department later clarified that no high-level discussions about a boycott were planned. The next day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki attempted to wave away the matter. “We have not discussed, and are not discussing, any joint boycott with allies and partners,” she said.
At an event last week, Susanne Lyons, chair of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee board of directors, said her organization opposed “athlete boycotts because they’ve been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues.” A U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and a subsequent Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles are largely remembered as unfortunate episodes of Cold War agitprop that mostly hurt eligible participants.
The event’s organizers, meanwhile, say they adhere to a nonpolitical orientation. “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement provided to Axios, adding that although it was committed to upholding human rights, the IOC “has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.”
Chinese officials struck a similar tone. “The politicization of sports will damage the spirit of the Olympic Charter and the interests of athletes from all countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Zhao, whose government denies international assessments of what is happening in Xinjiang, also threatened an unspecified “robust Chinese response” should boycotts go ahead.
But major sporting events — and especially international spectacles like the Olympics — always bear a political dimension. Perhaps the most iconic Olympic moment of the past century was an act of political protest. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing served as a coming-out party for a rising China, a national pageant that showcased its burgeoning soft power, in a booming capital where whole communities had been bulldozed to make way for Olympic venues. Then-President George W. Bush attended, shrugging off human rights concerns in favor of engagement.
The picture is far less rosy now, and there’s little chance of a high-level U.S. political delegation venturing to Beijing next February. “Athletes should participate and television should broadcast the competition, but government officials and companies should stay out of it,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, echoing a call last month from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for an “economic and diplomatic boycott” of the games. “I hope athletes while in Beijing will use every opportunity to call attention to repression in Xinjiang or elsewhere,” Kristof added.
The question of a boycott remains sensitive: Foreign governments and multinational companies are wary of courting China’s wrath — and some firms already have suffered for speaking out on alleged mass internment camps and forced labor practices in Xinjiang. “There would likely be bans imposed on select imports of products from countries that signal a willingness to shun the games and boycotts of companies from those countries,” Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Bloomberg News.
That’s all the more true for countries more tethered to Chinese investment and trade. In the United States, though, the spotlight has fallen on a slate of powerful U.S. companies sponsoring the Olympics. While many of these businesses have found their voice politically at home, they have largely avoided reckoning with the broader campaign of repression in Xinjiang.
“Can these companies really expect us to take seriously their self-congratulations on gender equity while Uyghur women are raped, sterilized and forced into prostitution?” wrote Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. “More than 10 months remain before the Winter Olympics are scheduled to open. The companies could say to the Chinese government: Liberate the camps. Let the Uyghurs live in peace. Allow outside observers to come see that you have done so. Then let the Games begin.”