As China prepares to host the Beijing Winter Olympics, a coalition of international activists have pressed for a boycott of what they are calling the “#2022GenocideOlympics” over the country's treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
The activists have urged athletes, broadcasters and others to forgo the Games in response to China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong and political and religious repression of Tibet's Buddhists.
“Surely human life is worth more than medals?” reads one open letter to the athletes. “We urge you to choose the right side and stand against genocide.”
Even as athletes were starting to arrive in Beijing, the activists continued to encourage them and sponsors of the Games to speak out. Their comments came in a virtual press conference on Friday organized by Human Rights Watch.
"Your silence is their strength," Lhadon Tethong, co-chair of the International Tibet Network, said at the conference, according to The Associated Press. "This is what they want more than anything: that the world will play by China’s rules, that we will follow China’s lead, that we will look away from these atrocities and crimes for the sake of business as usual."
The United States, which formally accused China of genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs in the last days of the Trump administration, will not send any high-level diplomats as spectators. It will continue to support athletes who compete in the Beijing Games, scheduled for Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, the White House said.
The Biden administration decided on that step because it would register its objections but not penalize the athletes who had been training for the competition, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in December.
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“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the (People’s Republic of China’s) egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” Psaki said during a briefing.
China responded by saying that the U.S. was acting out of "ideological prejudice and based on lies and rumors," calling the boycott a violation of the Olympic principal of political neutrality.
“The U.S. will pay a price for its practices,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian told reporters in December. “You may stay tuned for follow-ups.”
The Associated Press reported that another spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said of the human rights groups and their calls for a boycott: “the so-called human rights group is biased against China and keen on making mischief. Lies and rumors it fabricated are unpopular. Its egregious acts that harm the Olympic cause will never succeed.”
Accusations of torture, forced sterilization
China is accused of having held more than one million Muslims in a network of re-education camps since 2017, the majority of them Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group who are mostly from Xinjiang. Kazakhs and Uzbeks also have been imprisoned. Former detainees describe torture and the forced sterilization of women, according to Amnesty International and The Associated Press.
China rejects charges of human rights abuses and says that the Uyghurs are in vocational training centers. Yet, documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and reported by NBC News reveal a vast network of re-education camps, part of a campaign of involuntary assimilation and against extremist violence. The vocational training aspect amounts to forced labor, experts told NBC.
Elsewhere China has imposed a National Security Law in Hong Kong and arrested pro-democracy activists after promising political autonomy when it regained control of the British colony in the late 1990s. In Tibet, it is accused to trying to erase Tibetan culture and languages, imprisoning monks, carrying out political education of villagers and taking children from their families to attend boarding schools. And it is accused of repeated military threats against Taiwan, most recently in January with a large-scale incursion by China's air force of the island's air defense zone.
The activists include such organizations as the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, the International Tibet Network and WeTheHongkongers, and they have come together under the name #NoBeijing2022.
For Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project based in Ottawa, Canada, the diplomatic boycotts don't go far enough. Tohti argues that U.S. diplomats are refraining from participating without actually opposing the Games.
“For that reason I support full boycott or relocate or postpone the Olympics as there is active genocide taking place targeting at Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic people in East Turkistan,” he said in December. “History should not be allowed to repeat itself.”
Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries have joined the diplomatic boycott, while still others will not send a government delegation though have declined to describe the move as a boycott.
"No Genocide Games"
The International Olympic Committee has historically resisted moving the Games from a host country over calls for boycotts. The IOC insists that the Olympics are about sports, not politics, and that it must remain neutral. Whether diplomats attend is a political decision for each government to make, it said in a statement to NBC.
"The IOC in its political neutrality respects this right of the governments and takes note of their decisions," the statement said. "At the same time, this announcement also makes clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics, and we welcome this."
The statement pointed to a United Nations resolution in December that calls for cooperation with the IOC in its "efforts to use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
Meanwhile, activists have been staging protests to draw attention to their demands. They disrupted the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece in October, rushing the Temple of Hera waving a Tibetan flag and a banner that read “No Genocide Games." Others held a 57-hour vigil outside the White House during a virtual meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November — when Biden raised concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s practices in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
They've also tried to hit the IOC where it hurts most — its finances.
Demands that NBC cancel its broadcast
More than 200 human rights organizations asked NBC's CEO Jeff Shell and the executives at other media companies broadcasting the Olympics to cancel their upcoming coverage of the Games.
Seventy-three percent of the IOC's funding came from selling broadcasting rights, according financial statements from 2013 to 2016. And NBC is paying the Switzerland-based committee $7.75 billion for broadcasting rights through 2032.
“All of your companies are at serious risk of being complicit in China’s plan to ‘sport wash’ the severe and worsening human rights abuses and embolden the actions of the Chinese authorities,” reads a letter sent to the media executives. “By broadcasting Beijing 2022 your companies will legitimize these abuses and promote what is being widely described as the ‘Genocide Games.'”
Coalition members said NBC did not respond to their request.
Tethong, the co-chair of the International Tibet Network, said NBC gave no indication that its top officials cared that China was targeting Uyghurs with genocide, or attacking democracy in Hong Kong.
“The critical key component to me about NBC is the responsibility to make this world a better place by covering important issues, news events, whatever those might be,” Tethong said. “And in this case NBC is at the heart of the story, an outsized role, I think, along with the other broadcasters but certainly with an out-sized role fiscally."
Absent NBC canceling its showing of the Olympics, Tethong called for interviews to be broadcast during the Games with survivors, experts and historians about the mass human rights abuses of the current Chinese government.
Molly Solomon, the executive producer and president of NBC Olympics production, said during a preview presentation of the Olympics on Jan. 19 that prime time coverage would include discussions with two China analysts. One is journalist Andrew Browne, the former China editor for the Wall Street Journal who worked in Asia for 35 years and is now editorial director of Bloomberg New Economy Forum, and the other, a cultural historian, Jing Tsu, professor of Chinese Literature and Comparative Literature and chair of the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University.
Athletes would remain the centerpiece of the coverage, she said, "But the world, as we all know, is a really complicated place right now, and we understand that there are some difficult issues regarding the host nation."
"So our coverage will provide perspective on China's place in the world and the geopolitical context in which these Games are being held," she said.
Questions from Congress
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also wrote to Shell and Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, on Jan. 24, asking how the network would use its investment in the Winter Olympics to shed light on China's history of human rights abuses.
They are asking for a summary of NBC's investment in the People's Republic of China, whether the Chinese Communist Party or the IOC had tried to affect coverage related to reported human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims, if NBC was precluded from criticism of the Chinese government or if any of its broadcasts could be blocked by the Chinese government or the party, and what safeguards NBC has taken to ensure that it is not benefitting from forced labor, specifically in Xinjiang province, among other questions. They want answers by Feb. 7.
"Given China’s history of censorship and government control, and the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stands to benefit financially from NBCUniversal’s coverage of the games, we are concerned about the extent of influence the CCP may have over NBCUniversal’s coverage of the games," they wrote.
Activists at first approached the International Olympic Committee about moving the Games from Beijing, Frances Hui, the founder and director of We The Hongkongers, said.
“We’re not against the Olympics," Hui said. "We’re only against this country that is committing a genocide, human rights crimes. And they ignored us and that’s why we changed the campaign into, let’s boycott it, please boycott the Beijing Olympics."
A history of boycotts, protests
Olympic athletes and participating countries have rarely engaged in full boycotts of the Games, though, with exceptions over the Nazi regime, Cold War geo-political disputes, apartheid and Middle Eastern tensions.
Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon, noted that China had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a decidedly political motive. Its stance now is in contradiction to its previous straight-forward political positions, he said.
“The Beijing Olympics really should be the death knell of that myth that the Olympics are not politics because everywhere you look when it comes to the Beijing Games you see politics,” he said.
Usually, the people insisting the Olympics are not political are the ones who are making money from the Games, Boykoff said. Its top sponsors, including Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Visa, have paid at least $1 billion to the IOC for exclusive advertising rights, Reuters reported.
One group that should be getting more scrutiny in the mud-slinging between the U.S. and China is the International Olympic Committee, he said.
"They’re the prime purveyors of this ridiculous myth that the Olympics are not political," Boykoff said. "And they’re the prime beneficiaries of the fact that billions are rolling into their coffers every time that there’s an Olympics."
Boycotts and protests are part of a long history of political intrusion at the Olympic Games, from an Irish long jumper raising an Irish flag instead of the United Kingdom's Union Jack to two U.S. track and field stars raising a Black power salute to the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics and the subsequent boycott by the Soviet Union of the Los Angeles Games.
Beginning with the 2024 Paris Olympics, the committee is now including a human rights requirement in its contract with future host cities. The Beijing Games were not covered by the requirement, known as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
When the committee chose Beijing in 2015, the only other contender was Almaty, Kazakhstan. Oslo and Stockholm withdrew from consideration over political and financial issues.
Beijing also was the site of the Summer Olympics in 2008. At the time, it vowed to improve human right conditions within the country.
"Nothing of the sort happened," Boykoff said.
Statement from the International Olympic Committee
The presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government. The IOC in its political neutrality respects this right of the governments and takes note of their decisions. At the same time, this announcement also makes clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics, and we welcome this.
Support for the athletes and the Olympic Games has been expressed multiple times in recent months, most recently in the United Nations resolution entitled “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”, adopted by consensus of all 193 Member States and co-sponsored by 173 Member States at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York just last December.
This resolution calls for the observance of the Olympic Truce for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Beijing 2022, from seven days before the start of the Olympic Games, on 4 February 2022, until seven days after the end of the Paralympic Games.
It also “calls upon all Member States to cooperate with the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee in their efforts to use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games”.