Calls to boycott China’s Olympics amid Uyghur genocide fall flat in Washington

The US government’s verdict is clear, damning, and widely endorsed by human rights groups: China, the host country of the 2022 Winter Olympics, is guilty of an ongoing genocide. However, with the Games opening in Beijing six months from now, widespread calls for a postponement, relocation or boycott of athletes fell flat in Washington.

Instead, momentum is building for a diplomatic boycott in which government officials would not attend the Games, an outcome that would disappoint the bipartisan group of lawmakers and some 180 human rights groups who wish stronger action for what they call China’s crimes against humanity.

They also blame the corporate sponsors of the Olympics for putting their business interests ahead of widely accepted reports of atrocities.

“This is not a political disagreement. This is not a trade dispute. It is not politics. It is not even a question about a particular system of government,” said Representative James P. McGovern, D-Mass., At a recent press conference. hearing of the Congressional Executive Committee on China, which monitors human rights violations in China. “This is genocide.

China holds more than one million Uyghur Muslims in camps in its western region of Xinjiang, where news agencies and human rights monitors said detainees were victims of sexual assault, forced labor and sterilization. China denies the accusations as fabricated.

Despite the urgent situation, the International Olympic Committee and a large number of corporate sponsors have joined with the United States and other countries in accusing China of genocide in a general reluctance to act. They fear that a boycott or postponement could harm the Olympic movement and punish the athletes, while doing nothing to change China’s behavior.

There is also an open concern about retaliation from China, which is not only crucial to the global merchandise supply chain, but also has a habit of punishing critics by cutting off access to its vast consumer market. growing rapidly.

The notion of a diplomatic boycott has been embraced by Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a key organizer of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“That heads of state are going to China in the wake of an ongoing genocide while you are sitting there in your seats really begs the question: what moral authority do you have to talk about human rights? Does it matter anywhere in the world if you’re ‘are you ready to pay homage to the Chinese government as it commits genocide? ”Pelosi said at a hearing in May.

Legislation passed by the Senate in June would prohibit public funds from being used to send diplomats to represent the country at the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on February 4, 2022.

The Biden administration has not publicly endorsed the idea, although Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has told lawmakers he is working with allies to develop a “common approach” to address concerns about the Games. The British Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in July in favor of a diplomatic boycott, but it is still unclear which nations would participate in such a protest.

U.S. policymakers fear that if a diplomatic boycott does not attract broad participation from other countries, the move could end up backfiring and strengthening China while leaving the United States isolated on the issue.

“If you can’t win the fight, it might not be a fight you want to start,” a senior Democratic congressional official told ESPN.

Such deference frustrates many activists who believe China should be aggressively confronted with its human rights record, despite its massive influence over commercial interests.

Along with the United States, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands have called the situation in Xinjiang genocide. An independent report of more than 30 international law experts released in March said there is “clear and compelling” evidence that China violated all provisions of the United Nations Genocide Convention, reports collected from biometric data and mass surveillance to forced sterilization and torture.

“China’s policies and practices targeting the Uyghurs in the region must be seen in their entirety, which amounts to an intention to destroy the Uyghurs as a group, in whole or in part, as such,” their report said. report.

China has also been criticized for what many see as its trampling on democratic rights in Hong Kong and its long-standing crackdown on its citizens in Tibet. More recently, there has been concern about what is widely seen as China’s lack of transparency regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, however, the rhetoric criticizing China’s behavior has been stronger than any steps taken to change it. The International Olympic Committee, the Swiss-based association that controls the Games, has repeatedly said it does not interfere in the internal affairs of host countries. The IOC has clung to this position even when the host countries of the Games are viewed by the world community as totalitarian or, like China, accused of genocide.

The IOC told ESPN in an email that it believed it could “serve as a platform for cooperation and constructive engagement” and that its mandate was to “remain neutral on all global political issues.” Moreover, added the IOC, moving the Games would be “in practice impossible”.

“The contracts, which are signed when the Games are awarded – that is, about seven years before – legally oblige all parties to meet their obligations and deliverables,” concluded the IOC.

The idea that the Games should hover above politics is at the heart of the Olympic ideal championed by the leaders of the organization, who say that boycotts only penalize athletes while having no effect on the sport. behavior of countries.

“A boycott of the Olympics never yielded anything,” IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters in March.

Bach won a gold medal in fencing for West Germany in 1976, but was forced out of the 1980 Games in Moscow due to the United States-led boycott that followed the he Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Four years later, the Soviets carried out a retaliatory boycott of the Games in Los Angeles. According to Bach, the net effect of the boycotts was to penalize a generation of Olympic athletes even though the Soviets remained in Afghanistan until 1989.

But some pushing for a boycott say the next Winter Games are in a different category. Rather than comparing them to 1980, they look deeper into the days when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime hosted the Olympics in 1936.

The Berlin Games are perhaps best known for the historic performance of American athletics star Jesse Owens, a black man whose three gold medals shattered the myth of Aryan superiority. But US Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, noted that the Games also allowed Hitler to present a relatively benign face to the world.

“There is a parallel,” said Merkley, chairman of the congressional and executive committee. “Hitler used the Olympics to make his country shine at the same time that he was already engaged in horrific acts against his own citizens, and the worst was yet to come. But in this situation it is worse than in Berlin in 1936 because the genocide is already underway. “

The upcoming Games would once again provide a global showcase for a country that hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics; Beijing is the first city to win both summer and winter Olympics. In the past, China has used its economic might – it is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy within a decade – to punish countries and companies that criticize its human rights practices. ‘man.

Norway has seen its salmon exports to China plummet after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Liu died in 2017 less than a month after being released from a Chinese prison on medical parole. The NBA has seen its games removed from state television in China after former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in 2019 in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

“China is only as powerful as we allow it to be,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for the Uyghurs, an activist group that called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. . “We continue to feed this monster. We continue to do business. We continue to treat this government like a legitimate government while it acts like gangsters.”

Nike and H&M are among the brands that have faced online calls for a boycott in China from celebrities and Communist Party loyalists after exposing allegations of forced labor used to produce cotton in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied the charges, calling for re-education camps at vocational training centers in Xinjiang aimed at eradicating poverty and religious extremism.

Other brands, including some Olympic sponsors, have remained silent.

In a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, members of Congress lobbied representatives of five major corporate sponsors of the Olympics – Intel, Airbnb, Coca-Cola Co., Proctor & Gamble and Visa – over the situation in China .

Lawmakers repeatedly asked representatives about their companies’ human rights commitments, which they proudly shared. But when the question arose as to whether they could use their influence as Olympic sponsors to pressure the IOC to move the Olympics from China, the conversation slowed down.

“We are all anxiously waiting for you all to say, ‘Move the Olympics. The Beijing Genocide Olympics must be moved.’ Can’t you say that? ” Representative Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, asked Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s vice president for human rights.

“We are not making a decision on the host – on the venue, but we are working on the human rights aspect and there has been progress in the space,” Lalli said, explaining that sponsorship money follows the athletes, not the host countries.

“I think American companies are worried that if you do that, they’ll deny you access,” Smith said, before handing over. “This is how they retaliate. This is how they can get away with, literally, murder.”

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