When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, many argued or at least hoped that international attention would improve human rights in China. It was not the case.
Now, China is counting down to yet another Olympic Games in Beijing, this time the Winter Games next February. And he faces growing calls for a boycott for his violations of his rights, from Hong Kong’s deprivation of promised democratic freedoms to the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The world, however, has changed since 2008. Today, hardly anyone thinks that hosting the Games will temper China’s behavior.
At the time, China’s leadership at least promised concessions to basic democratic freedoms to show they would be worthy hosts. The current leader, Xi Jinping, is much more confident, neither inclined nor obliged to compromise. And China itself is no longer an emerging capitalist power but the world’s second largest economy, competing directly with the United States for global influence.
Elected officials in the United States, Canada and Great Britain have called on their countries to abstain from the Olympics, as have many human rights organizations. Others, like Freedom House, said that even if the Games continued, government officials, cultural figures and sponsors should decline to attend.
Anything less will be seen as an endorsement of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party regime and a blatant disregard for civil and human rights, read a public letter written this month that called for a boycott. It has been signed by more than 180 advocacy groups around the world, many of which have focused on Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.
So far, no country has declared a boycott. The calls also met 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 weight alone carries more weight than ever, including with international bodies like the Olympic Committee and the big companies supporting the Games. China has also demonstrated its willingness to use trade as a tool for geopolitical coercion, as Australia has learned from a wave of punitive measures targeting coal, wine and other exports.
Even sport is not immune. The government suspended China’s National Basketball Association broadcasts on a single tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests, then followed suit with a leading English Premier League football team after one of its players denounced China’s treatment of Uyghurs.
The Chinese government is increasingly powerful and influential now, said Teng Biao, a lawyer who was detained in Beijing in 2008 for criticizing the country’s preparations for the Games. They have the power to punish those who criticize the regime.
The International Olympic Committee, like the sponsors and broadcasters, has a lot to lose if the Games are not well attended.
It is also clear that we want with these Olympic Games to experience the passion and excellence of sport and the excellence of the Chinese organization, the chairman of the committees, Thomas Bach, told the agency. Xinhua official press release, after a phone call with Xi in January to discuss Beijing’s latest preparations.
Beijing received the 2022 Games after the abandonment of several European cities in 2015, citing the high costs. China defeated the only other remaining bidder, Almaty, the main city of Kazakhstan, another authoritarian country. The vote was 44 to 40.
Beijing, which will be the first city to host the Summer and Winter Games, is not really known for its winter sports. China didn’t win its first Olympic Winter Games gold in speed skating until 2002. Xi, however, decreed that the country would produce 300 million snow and ice enthusiasts, a goal Olympic chief Bach noted with praise last month.
Chinese ice and snow! Xi applauded during an inspection of future Olympic venues, which was released in a video on February 4 marking the country’s debut one year countdown games.
China has tightened its estimated budget to $ 3 billion by reusing some of the emblematic sites of the 2008 Summer Games, including the stadium known as Birds Nest for the opening and closing ceremonies. The Water Cube, where swimming events took place, will feature curling.
The open-air skiing events are to be held in two towns northwest of the capital, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, now connected to Beijing by a new high-speed train that has reduced the journey to less than an hour. It doesn’t matter that the region normally only receives two inches of snow per year; the rest will be created artificially.
China’s willingness to spend what is necessary to host the Games is part of what made them indispensable to the Olympic Committee. Mr 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 had no plan to raise fundamental human rights issues in the Chinese government, he said. And they won’t.
The committee responded with a written statement attributable to an anonymous spokesperson. He said the committee had neither the mandate nor the capacity to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.
Critics of China have raised many of the same accusations the country did before 2008. They cite its lack of political and religious freedoms, pervasive censorship, and long-standing crackdown on Tibet, which it forcibly absorbed after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The repressions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which unfolded after the 2022 Games were awarded in Beijing, have raised the stakes. The same goes for the detention in China of two Canadians arrested in connection with a dispute over a US extradition warrant against an executive of Huawei, the telecommunications giant.
The Trump administration, in one of its latest acts, declared that China’s actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide, a designation that added weight to the boycott campaign in the United States.
For critics, China’s behavior has created a challenge for democratic nations as well as for the Olympic committee: If detaining over a million people in camps isn’t disqualifying, what would it be?
Some even have compared the 2022 Olympics to those which Nazi Germany hosted in 1936, claiming it is morally indefensible to attribute the Games to a country accused of having carried out mass detentions of an ethnic group.
It definitely makes people uncomfortable, said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, which helped organize the public letter calling for the boycott.
I think more needs to be done to tie it back to the 1936 Olympics and what we think of it now, she added. It is extremely embarrassing that this was ever allowed. And we came back this time with our eyes wide open.
President Bidens’ administration has signaled ambivalence over a boycott, although some of his campaign advisers have reportedly raised the idea of a boycott along with other nations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested a boycott was not yet an option. We were not currently talking about changing our posture or plans regarding the Beijing Olympics, she said.
The last major Olympic boycott concerned the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984; the Soviet Union and its allies stayed away from this event in retaliation for the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The pressure exerted on Beijing today is not unlike that exerted on Russia before the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014. There was no boycott of these Games, despite calls for ‘a new discriminatory law criminalizing homosexual propaganda, but world leaders, for the most part, did not attend to them.
Minky Worden, who has followed China’s participation in the Human Rights Watch Olympics 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’s not the only arrow in the human rights community’s quiver, she said.
China, for its part, seems fearless, even provocative.
If a country is encouraged by extremist forces to take concrete steps to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, China will certainly fight back fiercely, Global Times, a nationalist newspaper belonging to 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 2032 Summer Games.
Tariq Panja contributed reporting and Claire Fu contributed research.
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