Beijing Olympics Boycott: What It Says About China, The International Olympic Committee, And Human Rights

On December 7th, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing which begin on February 4th. Although the government will still support U.S. athletes who compete, no American politician will accompany them. The Chinese government has pledged “resolute countermeasures” and retaliation against the U.S, while claiming that American politicians were never invited. Since the announcement, Australia, Britain, and Canada have joined the boycott and will not send officials to the games. The U.S and subsequent countries made their decision in protest over the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslims throughout the Xinjiang region.

Almost a year ago on January 19th, the U.S. declared the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population a genocide. Although this declaration is recent, the horrific acts committed against Xinjiang’s residents are not. As an atheist country, the strong religious affiliation of the Uyghur population is seen as a threat to the Chinese government. More specifically, Islam is seen as extremism and any alignment with its ideology could be considered terrorism. In what it has termed a “counterterrorism” effort, the CCP has not only restricted Muslims’ freedoms in daily life, but forcibly relocated large numbers of Uyghurs into re-education camps throughout Xinjiang. The Council on Foreign Relations predicts that upwards of one million individuals have been detained just since 2017.

Since 2017, the world has begun to notice China’s Uyghur population, whose plight remained largely invisible until recently. This year, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy published a report confirming that China’s actions violate “every provision” of the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Chinese atrocities breach not only international human rights law, but the Chinese constitution as well. Within the region itself, Chinese authorities prohibit any outward display of Islamic religiosity, such as attending mosques, participating in traditional religious ceremonies like marriages or burials, or even adhering to Islamic dietary restrictions.

Those who are imprisoned within the concentration camps experience even worse: women are subject to forced sterilization and often assaulted by men in power; prisoners are forced to deny Islam in exchange for loyalty to communism and the CCP; and inmates are subject to forced labor conditions and even torture. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied all allegations, branding the facilities voluntary “vocational training centers,” but refusing access to any foreign organizations or governments. Despite international awareness and condemnation, however, the U.S. is still the only actor that has declared these acts a genocide. Even the United Nations has remained silent, likely due to China’s prominent position on the Security Council.

The inhumane treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslims constitutes obvious human rights abuses and has been compared to Nazi action during the Holocaust. The recent boycotts are primarily responding to this exact violation, however, it is not the first time China has been accused of human rights violations. The Chinese government’s intense criminal punishments, restrictions on citizen freedoms, and treatment of Tibetan individuals have long been sources of condemnation among human rights groups and the international community. Internet censorship and limited freedom of expression are some of the most cited offenses.

Given the long-term tension between China and the rest of the world, it is also not the first time countries have protested Chinese Olympic Games or attacked the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) relative disregard for human rights. In 2000, Beijing was denied its bid to host the summer Olympics, with many believing this was a result of its human rights abuses and negative pressure from NGOs. However, the summer Olympics were awarded to Beijing eight years later. While many countries did not attempt to boycott these games, believing it would be counterproductive, many of the same human rights groups accused the IOC of turning a blind eye to the plight of Chinese citizens and endorsing government abuses. This accusation has continued against the IOC even outside of China and into this year.

Many believe that the IOC should not allow countries like China to host as it is seen as an approval of their corrupt actions. Others have argued that it is the very act of putting these countries in the public eye during the games that could promote change by opening them up to scrutiny. In response, the IOC has repeatedly argued it is an apolitical organization that does not consider human rights or development when choosing host countries. In reference to this year, IOC President Thomas Bach told The Guardian: “[E]xpecting that Olympic Games can fundamentally change a country, its political system or its laws, is a completely exaggerated expectation. The Olympics cannot solve problems that generations of politicians have not solved.” However, the IOC also claimed to respect the U.S. and others’ boycott, affirming that individual political bodies can make autonomous political decisions when it comes to the Olympics.

Aside from the granting of the Olympic bid to Beijing, critics have attacked the IOC for being a bystander in other ways leading up to February. Over the last three weeks, the international community has worried about the safety of three-time Olympic tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared for weeks after she accused a Chinese official of sexually assaulting her. The IOC then undertook what they are defending as “quiet diplomacy,” by facilitating a phone call with Shuai to prove that she was safe. Many believe this call was created as a ploy by China’s government to ease the public’s fears and now see the IOC as complicit in its ruse.

Additionally, although it upholds the IOC’s apolitical stance, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which bans any athlete protest has been very unpopular. The IOC slightly modified it this year to allow demonstrations before play begins, but many athletes still see the rule as overly restrictive on personal freedom of expression. Finally, even in host countries without a history of human rights violations, the IOC has historically been criticized for the negative impact the Olympics has on local populations. The large amounts of infrastructure and funding needed to put on the Olympics often displaces many low-income individuals, causes significant environmental concerns, and can be used by governments as an excuse to violate essential human freedoms.

With all of the backlash against the IOC, the U.S. and its allies could be admired for taking a stand on human rights. In reality, though, can this boycott inspire meaningful change? U.S. press secretary Jen Psaki claimed that a U.S. government presence would “treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.” Still, some political experts claim that this move is more about U.S. optics since many countries often do not even send government officials, a move even more common with increasing coronavirus risks. Human rights groups are pushing for powerful global corporations to also boycott, to make a real impact.

While all athletes should still be allowed to compete, the U.S. government and other protestors should also combat China’s actions. In addition to imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, as the U.S. has already done, boycotting countries should push harder to gain access to Uyghur camps and put increasing pressure on China by refusing to engage in political diplomacy. Some Olympic boycotts have been successful, such as in South Africa amidst its apartheid, while others like the U.S. Cold War boycotts against Russia remained symbolic. Given that the Uyghur oppression is not legally codified or as public as what happened in South Africa, this optical boycott will not be enough to make a difference.

The IOC must also begin to take responsibility for its global role. While the actual Games may remain apolitical, the lead up and execution of them will never be. If the Olympics continue, the IOC needs to begin defending individuals over individual countries and using the power it holds positively. The selection of host countries is already biased—almost all Olympic Games were held in the Global North. Therefore, selections should reflect the ability and worthiness of a country to host, while also working to make the Olympics as least disruptive to local communities as possible. The Olympics serve as a valuable arena for sports diplomacy and global unity, but have continually divided nations instead due to politics and injustice. The IOC must take action now to create a more unifying event if it hopes to survive.

The world promised to never let something like the Holocaust happen again, yet here we are watching history repeat itself. The Uyghur Muslims in China are undergoing oppression that violates every right to life defended by the UN and all 193 member countries. It is the responsibility of every global actor (including the U.S. and the IOC) to take a significant stand against this form of persecution, regardless of the negative impact it may have on their interests.


Sydney Stewart


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