As Tokyo Games wrap up, boycott debate hangs over Beijing Olympics

HONG KONG – As the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games end on Sunday, attention will turn to Beijing and the prospects of a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese capital’s second round to host the Olympic Games in less than 15 years.

Critics say human rights in China have only deteriorated since the country hosted the 2008 Summer Games.

“In 2008, there was hope,” Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, said at an online conference she hosted on Friday on the upcoming Beijing Winter Games. .

There was a sense of optimism then that “the Olympics could bring positive changes to the country, especially for press freedom and human rights. Instead, 13 years later, China is in the midst of its worst human rights crackdowns since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, ”she said.

More than 180 human rights groups issued an open letter in February urging world leaders to “commit to a diplomatic boycott” of the upcoming Olympics in the Chinese capital in less than six months. Such a protest involves sending leaders or dignitaries to the host country.

Chinese athletes march in the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 23. © Reuters

The letter cited human rights allegations against China in its regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The groups also noted that Beijing has stepped up pressure in recent years against Taiwan, in the South China Sea and on the country’s border with India.

The coalition said the crackdown on fundamental freedoms in China has worsened since Beijing won the 2022 Winter Games in 2015. The groups urge countries “to make sure they are not used to embolden the Chinese government’s appalling human rights violations and crackdown on dissent ”.

A separate open letter last September from more than 160 rights groups called on Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, to revoke the ruling that attributed the event to Beijing.

No government has declared a diplomatic boycott, but lawmakers in the United States, Canada and the European Union are calling for one.

Human Rights Watch is not included in any of these letters, but the US-based group favors the diplomatic boycott, saying the upcoming Olympics “could be the most problematic games since the 1936 Berlin Games held in Berlin. Nazi Germany “.

Worden called it “completely unprecedented for an Olympics to take place amid such crackdowns.” She cited actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as those involving human rights lawyers, activists, doctors, citizen journalists and internet users across China.

China has repeatedly rejected any criticism of the Beijing Winter Games as well as attempts to link its so-called human rights record to the Olympics.

After US lawmakers pressured US companies sponsoring the Beijing Olympics, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized Americans as “slandering and defaming China, using this opportunity to interfere , hinder and destroy the preparation and organization ”of the Games.

During the daily briefing on July 28, he also criticized Washington for “serious violation of the spirit of the Olympic Charter”, and stressed that “what it harms are the interests of athletes around the world and of the Olympic movement” .

Nikki Dryden, a Canadian swimmer at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, expressed her concerns from an athlete’s perspective at Friday’s forum. Dryden, now a human rights lawyer and activist for athletes, is particularly wary of the safety of participants.

“If you are a Muslim athlete from any country in the world, how could you feel safe knowing that the host country is systematically targeting Muslims within its own borders? ” she said.

Dryden also cited Beijing’s two-year detention of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, both accused of espionage.

“I wouldn’t feel safe,” she said.

Ethnic Uyghur protesters take part in an anti-China protest in Istanbul in October 2020 © Reuters

The pressure on Western companies in the Chinese market “is more intense than ever,” said Dexter Roberts, former head of the China bureau and editor of Asia news at Bloomberg Businessweek.

No large company has announced an official boycott.

“Any company that is considering a boycott does not have a significant presence in the Chinese market,” Roberts said.

But companies that haven’t taken a stand on the Beijing Games face a dilemma.

“The pressure on them will become more and more as we get closer to the Olympics,” said Roberts. “What matters, of course, is when it starts to affect stock prices and their market share.”

Human Rights Watch wrote to all of the corporate sponsors of the Olympic Partner Program, Worden said, asking them about their human rights due diligence at the Beijing Games.

“So far no one has responded,” she said, although the group has set a June 1 deadline for responding.

The list includes Western multinationals like Airbnb, Allianz, Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow, Intel, Omega, P&G and Visa, as well as Asian companies like Alibaba Group Holding, Bridgestone, Mengniu, Panasonic, Samsung and Toyota Motor.

An IOC spokesperson said on Friday: “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.”

The granting of the right of accommodation “does not mean that the IOC takes a position regarding the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country,” the spokesperson said in a letter response. electronic.

But Dryden said the IOC was “responsible for this situation.” China fell short of its pledge for the 2008 Summer Games to improve human rights and various freedoms, but was still given another chance to host the World Sports Gala, she declared.

She urged the IOC to immediately implement the human rights strategy that was submitted to the commission by independent experts in March 2020 and published last December.

“If this plan were put in place, human rights due diligence would be underway in Beijing and China right now before the Olympics,” she said. “For me, the IOC has really failed here.”

The IOC did not respond directly to questions from Nikkei Asia about Dryden’s statement on Friday. But the spokesperson said that all host cities, governments and parties concerned “must provide assurance that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be respected in the context of the Games”. This charter respects human rights, and China has provided assurances, like any other host, the IOC said.

The statement added that “the IOC has neither the mandate nor the capacity to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.”

Rayhan Asat, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, opposes the boycott of the Winter Games, saying it would unfairly harm athletes. But Asat, an ethnic Uyghur, says the Olympics are also about human dignity.

“We must not forget that the Chinese government would make sure to showcase the dancing Uyghurs and living happy lives,” she said. If the Beijing Games go as planned, there is “a risk that people will leave with this illusory impression of what China is and what it represents.”

Asat has a 34-year-old brother, Ekpat, detained in one of the Chinese Uyghur camps that Beijing calls re-education centers.

She proposes a postponement of the Beijing Olympics.

“If we can postpone the Olympics for COVID, why not postpone them for crimes against humanity? she said. “Why not postpone it in the face of mass atrocities and in honor of those victims who use every last breath to fight in the hope that people like us, the international community, will fight with them every step of the way? . “

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