Feb 9, 2021 - Sports

New geopolitical fears surround 2022 Beijing Olympics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Global fears of China's authoritarian rise are overshadowing the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing and sparking calls for a boycott.

Why it matters: By openly flouting human rights norms while claiming leadership of the international system, China is cracking the foundation upon which global traditions such as the Olympics are based.

  • Democratic governments worry that allowing Beijing to host the Olympics without protest would further entrench China's authoritarianism domestically and abroad.
  • The U.S. and its partners are also concerned about the rise of China as a rival amid a growing sense of democratic vulnerability, imbuing the 2022 Games with a new undercurrent of geopolitical fear.

Driving the news: A coalition of 180 rights groups have called for a traditional boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics, citing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China.

  • But the White House said on Feb. 3 that the Biden administration currently does not have any plans to boycott the games or support moving them to another country.

The Beijing 2008 Summer Games were China's first Olympics, and many Chinese people both at home and around the world felt an immense sense of pride and patriotism. That enthusiasm infused the games with an unforgettable sense of joy and hope.

  • The entire country mobilized for the occasion, putting on stunning opening ceremonies and sparing no expense in the construction of new facilities.
  • Western democracies hoped the Olympics would mark a new era of democratic reform for China. In the short run, it seemed to work. China opened its doors to the world in the months leading up to the games, allowing journalists unusually easy access.

Yes, but: Human rights advocates criticized China in 2008, citing China's repression in Tibet and its support of Sudan amid the genocide in Darfur.

  • During the torch relay before the games began, pro-Tibet activists organized protests at more than a dozen cities around the world, while the Chinese quietly helped organize counter-protests.
  • In a January 2008 New York Times column titled "China's genocide Olympics," Nicholas Kristof wrote that "in exchange for access to Sudanese oil, Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century."

Now China is actually committing a genocide, not just abetting one. In January, the U.S. State Department determined the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing policies of mass internment and forced assimilation of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide.

  • But unlike other regimes that have committed genocide in recent decades, including Myanmar and Rwanda, China is the world's second most powerful country and is on track to overtake the U.S. economy within a decade.
  • Beijing's leaders use that heft to cow countries into silence, levying heavy costs on governments and organizations that are determined to protest against China, and manufacturing the appearance of global consent for its policies.

Numerous countries have boycotted past Olympics to protest against the host country, but there's also precedent for the IOC taking action, itself. It banned South Africa from 1964 to 1988 over its apartheid policies.

The big picture: It's harder than ever for an Olympic boycott to gain traction.

  • Even if liberal democracies could organize one, such a response would highlight the fundamental paradox China's global sway is creating: Either participate on China's terms or withdraw and create smaller alternatives.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While a full-blown boycott of Beijing 2022 seems unlikely, some Uyghur and Tibetan advocacy groups are banding together to urge a diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022.

  • A diplomatic boycott would allow athletes to compete while blunting some of the soft power that hosting an Olympics can bring.

What's happening: "The International Olympic Committee won't speak to you if you don’t want the games to happen. If you’re trying to boycott the games, broadcasters won’t speak to you, athletes won’t speak to you, sponsors won’t speak to you," said Pete Irwin, a program officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

  • As a more realistic alternative, Irwin said, they're asking governments to "make an easy choice not to send a high-level official to the games."

The IOC itself is also facing ire. Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Tibet Network, which is also advocating for a diplomatic boycott, told Axios she is "hugely disappointed" with the IOC for refusing to address China's massive human rights violations.

  • In a July 2015 letter addressed to the International Tibet Network in response to the group's concerns, the IOC communications director wrote that "with regards to Beijing 2022, assurances were provided" regarding human rights, labor rights and the right to demonstrate.
  • McKeown said she has repeatedly asked the IOC to provide evidence that such assurances were made and what those assurances exactly were. The IOC never provided this information, McKeown said.

The bottom line: “The IOC knows the Chinese authorities are arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs and other Muslims, expanding state surveillance, and silencing numerous peaceful critics,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said last week.

  • “Its failure to publicly confront Beijing’s serious human rights violations makes a mockery of its own commitments and claims that the Olympics are a ‘force for good.’"
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