When Beijing staged the Summer Olympic Games in 2008, many argued — or at least hoped — that the international attention would improve human rights in China. It didn’t.
Now, China is counting down to another Olympics in Beijing, this time the Winter Games next February. And it is facing mounting calls for a boycott over its rights abuses, from stripping Hong Kong of its promised democratic freedoms to the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The world, however, has changed since 2008. Virtually no one today believes that holding the games will temper China’s behavior.
Back then, Chinese leaders at least promised concessions to basic democratic freedoms to show that they would be worthy hosts. The current leader, Xi Jinping, is far more confident, neither inclined nor compelled to compromise. And China itself is no longer an emerging capitalistic power but the world’s second-largest economy, competing head-to-head with the United States for global influence.
Elected officials in the United States, Canada and Britain have called on their countries to abstain from the Olympics, as have scores of human rights organizations. Others, like Freedom House, have said that even if the games go ahead, government officials, cultural figures and sponsors should refuse to attend.
“Anything less will be seen as an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule and blatant disregard for civil and human rights,” read a public letter drafted this month that called for a boycott. It was signed by more than 180 advocacy groups around the world, many of them focused on Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.
So far, no country has declared a boycott. The calls have also faced resistance from the International Olympic Committee, whose charter appeals to “the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
China’s economic clout alone carries more weight than ever, including with international bodies like the Olympic committee and the big corporate backers of the games. China has also demonstrated its will to use trade as a tool of geopolitical coercion, as Australia has learned from a flurry of punitive measures targeting coal, wine and other exports.
Not even sport is immune. The government suspended broadcasts of the National Basketball Association in China over a single tweet in support of the protests in Hong Kong, and then did the same to a prominent English Premier League soccer team after one of its players denounced China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
“The Chinese government is more and more powerful and influential now,” said Teng Biao, a lawyer who was detained in Beijing in 2008 for criticizing the country’s preparations for those games. “They have the leverage to sanction those who are critical of the regime.”
The International Olympic Committee, like the sponsors and broadcasters, has a lot to lose if the games are sparsely attended.
“It is also clear that we want with this Olympic Games to experience the passion and excellence of sport and the excellence of the Chinese organization,” the committee’s president, Thomas Bach, was quoted as telling the state news agency, Xinhua, after a telephone call with Xi in January to discuss Beijing’s latest preparations.
Beijing was awarded the 2022 Games after several European cities dropped out in 2015, citing the onerous costs. China defeated the only other bidder left standing, Almaty, the principal city of Kazakhstan, another authoritarian country. The vote was 44-40.
Beijing, which will be the first city to play host to both the Summer and Winter Games, is not exactly known for winter sports. China only won its first Winter Olympics gold medal, in speedskating, in 2002. Xi, however, decreed that the country would produce 300 million snow and ice enthusiasts — a goal Bach noted glowingly last month.
“Chinese ice and snow!” Xi cheered during an inspection of future Olympic sites, which was broadcast in a video Feb. 4 marking the start of the country’s yearlong countdown to the games.
China tightened its budget — estimated at $3 billion — by reusing some of the iconic sites of the 2008 Summer Games, including the stadium known as the Bird’s Nest for the opening and closing ceremonies. The Water Cube, where swimming events were held, will feature curling.
The outdoor skiing events are to be held in two cities northwest of the capital, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, now connected to Beijing by new high-speed rail that has cut the journey to under an hour. Never mind that the area normally receives only 2 inches of snow a year; the rest will be created artificially.
China’s willingness to spend what is necessary to hold the games is part of what has made it indispensable to the Olympic committee. Teng, the lawyer, who is now a professor at Hunter College in New York, was among those who met with committee officials last October to demand more pressure on China.
“They didn’t have any plan to bring up basic human rights issues to the Chinese government,” he said. “And they will not do that.”
The committee responded with a written statement attributable to an unnamed spokesman. It said that the committee “has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.”
China’s critics have raised many of the same accusations that dogged the country before 2008. They cite its lack of political and religious freedoms, its pervasive censorship and its long-standing repression of Tibet, which it forcibly absorbed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which unfolded after Beijing was awarded the 2022 Games, have raised the stakes. So has China’s ongoing detention of two Canadians arrested as part of a dispute over a U.S. extradition warrant for an executive of Huawei, the telecommunications giant.
The Trump administration, in one of its last acts, declared that China’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide, a designation that added weight to the boycott campaign in the United States.
To critics, China’s behavior has created a challenge for democratic nations as well as the Olympic committee: If holding more than a million people in camps is not disqualifying, what would be?
Some have even compared the 2022 Olympics to those that Nazi Germany staged in 1936, saying it is morally indefensible to award the games to a country accused of carrying out mass detentions of an ethnic group.
“It’s definitely making people feel uncomfortable,” said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, who helped to arrange for the public letter calling for a boycott.
“I think more needs to be done to connect it to the 1936 Olympics and how we feel about that now,” she added. “It is hugely embarrassing that that was ever allowed to happen. And we’re walking into that again — this time with our eyes wide open.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has signaled ambivalence about a boycott, though some of his campaign advisers were said to have raised the idea of one in concert with other nations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that a boycott was not yet an option.
“We’re not currently talking about changing our posture or our plans as it relates to the Beijing Olympics,” she said.
The last significant Olympic boycott was of the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984; the Soviet Union and its allies stayed away from that event in retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The pressure on Beijing today is not unlike that put on Russia before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. There was no boycott of those games, despite calls for one over a discriminatory new law criminalizing “homosexual propaganda,” but world leaders, for the most part, did not attend them.
Minky Worden, who has followed China’s participation in the Olympics for Human Rights Watch for more than two decades, said a campaign against the 2022 Games could put pressure on sponsors and visitors.
“The boycott has a lot of symbolism, but it is not the only arrow in the quiver of the human rights community,” she said.
China, for its part, appears undaunted, even defiant.
“If any country is encouraged by extremist forces to take concrete actions to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, China will definitely retaliate fiercely,” Global Times, a nationalist newspaper owned by the Communist Party, wrote this month.
China is also preparing another Olympic bid, this time with the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing as potential hosts for the Summer Games of 2032.
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