Beijing 2022: Olympic boycott battle over China’s ‘Genocide Games’

A demonstration in Washington DC in April 2021 called for an international boycott of the Olympic Games in Beijing 2022 over China's treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

China’s human rights violations against one million Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang have for years upset human rights defenders, IOC members, and representatives of national governments. But a few months before the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China’s critics are still divided on the question of a boycott of the global sport event.

An international boycott is threatening to damage the reputation of Beijing’s second Olympic Games next year thanks to the Chinese government’s human rights violations. Beijing is hosting the Olympic Winter Games in February when thousands of athletes from all over the world are invited as guests of honor to President Xi Jinping’s soft power party.

Prior to the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, Tibet was the main battle ground for boycott campaigns focusing on China’s hard power politics in regions where ethnic minority groups traditionally have been in opposition to the autocratic regimes ruling Communist Party.

Today, the battle ground has moved to Xinjiang where international boycott campaigns are highlighting the Chinese government’s human rights violations against one million Uyghurs and other Muslims that researchers estimate have been detained in nearly 400 re-education camps, detention centers, and prisons since 2016, one year after Beijing won the right to host the Games in 2022.

In addition to China’s crackdown against democracy and freedom in Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the Olympic host country’s extreme Anti-Muslim strategy in Xinjiang makes it difficult for most human rights defenders to understand why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is still allowing China to host Beijing 2022.

China’s government has defended its use of force and coercion against Muslims by framing the camps in Xinjiang as a necessary part of a national Chinese war on terror that has its roots in China’s involvement in the global war on terror declared by the US government after the 9/11 attacks two decades ago.

IOC president Thomas Bach has rejected any Olympic interference in the Chinese conflict by saying that the IOC is not a super world government that can solve issues for which not even the UN’s Security Council has a solution. But other IOC members have also shown signs of regrets after reading the latest reports on China’s alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang that to many IOC critics is a ticking bomb under the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.

IOC doyen: Disappointed with the Chinese government
According to Play the Game sources at Denmark’s National Olympic Committee, the reason for the Danish Crown Prince Frederik’s decision to resign as an IOC member this summer was fear of being associated with Beijing’s human rights-stained Games. And the longest serving IOC member, Canadian Richard W. Pound, is not happy either:

“I am disappointed with what I understand to be Chinese government conduct, but allocation of the Games is based on organisational reliability, not political appropriation of Chinese government conduct,” Pound says to Play the Game.

To the IOC doyen, an Olympic boycott will bring about no change of conduct on the part of the Chinese government:     

“It is for other governments to deal with the Chinese government in a meaningful way, not by sacrificing their own athletes in a gesture that they know will not be effective. My sense is that governments are too conflicted to engage in concerted action directed at China.”  

To the question of whether China’s political strategies in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong are in line with the principles of the Olympic Charter, Pound answers:

“They may not be, but the IOC and the Olympic Movement must exist and operate in a world that is far from perfect. We can use the Games to show that peaceful interaction can still exist even in a divided world.”

Uyghur human rights lawyer: Postpone the Games
But to human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat, an Uyghur who now lives in the US, the question of a boycott of the Games in Beijing is not merely about international politics or Olympic principles. Being the first Uyghur to graduate from Harvard Law School, she is fighting for the release of her brother Ekpar Asat who is sentenced to 15 years  in a Chinese prison for ‘inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination’.

“We must postpone the Games if we cannot relocate at this point. It is unfathomable that we are still debating whether a country shall glorify its genocide via a universal game designed to achieve a better world,” Asat says to Play the Game.

“Every day when my brother and other victims suffer and waste away, our dignity as bystanders drains away with theirs. At the end of this genocide, when the world is looking on the remains of Uyghur society, it will ask itself why it didn’t do more to help or allowed a country to use a game to celebrate genocide. The world will feel itself to be less than it was, having lost its own dignity within the horror.”

Asat’s plea for an Olympic boycott is supported by at least 180 human rights groups who earlier this year signed a joint statement calling for a boycott of the Beijing Games. Some groups have even labelled the event the ‘Genocide Games’ with a reference to the camps in Xinjiang that activists compare to Nazi-Germany’s concentration camps where millions of German dictator Adolf Hitler’s political opponents and Jews were held prisoners or killed between 1933 and 1945.

But how did Beijing 2022 become the ‘Genocide Games’ after China’s successful hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 where most international boycott campaigns slowly faded away long before dozens of world leaders attended the opening ceremony in Beijing?

Amnesty International: A dystopian hellscape
The initial human rights reports on China’s detention centers in Xinjiang were published in 2017. At first, the Chinese government denied the existence of the camps.

But in 2018, a top Chinese official spoke in detail for the first time about the camps which he described as ‘training and boarding centers’ that are a part of a Chinese counterterrorism strategy to deradicalise and assimilate 13 million Muslims in the region.

Despite China’s detailed explanation of the camps, international calls for a boycott of the Beijing Games grew stronger in January 2021 when the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his last day in office accused China of 'genocide and crimes against humanity'.

Since then, several human rights reports based on interviews with former Muslim detainees in the Xinjiang camps and their families have confirmed that China’s extreme version of the war on terror seems to be much worse than first expected when it comes to the human rights of the detained Muslims.

In April 2021, the Human Rights Watch report 'Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots' concluded that human rights crimes against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang in recent years have reached unprecedented levels that make the Chinese government guilty of the worst human rights crackdown in China since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

According to the 53-page Human Rights Watch report, the violations in Xinjiang include mass surveillance, cultural persecution, family separations, forced labor, torture, sexual abuse, and violence of reproductive rights.

In June 2021, Amnesty International released a 160-page report 'Like we were enemies in a war' that according to its Secretary General Agnès Callamard documents that the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have created “a dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale” that threatens to deprive Muslim minorities of their religious and cultural identities.

“It should shock the conscience of humanity that massive numbers of people have been subject to brainwashing, torture and other degrading treatment in internment camps, while millions more lives in fear amid a vast surveillance apparatus,” Callamard said.

EU: Decline government and diplomatic invitations
Even though both private and public human rights defenders find China’s war on terror in Xinjiang horrifying, they haven’t yet been able to agree on a united call for a boycott of the Beijing Games. And in some countries like Russia, the Olympic boycott debate is rejected as 'nonsense'.

To some human rights defenders though, only a full boycott of the Beijing Games makes sense. At a media conference in May 2021, representatives of the World Uyghur Congress, Tibet Action Institute, China Against the Death Penalty, Students for Free Tibet, and Campaigns for Uyghurs pleaded for a full boycott meaning that athletes should stay away.

“I urge the athletes to put themselves in our shoes. They might lose one Olympic Games, but we have lost our families,” activist Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress argued.

So far, no national government has voted for a full boycott even though this seems to be the only solution that would have a real effect on the Chinese government given that athletes are likely to be the only foreigners to attend the Games anyway because of Covid 19-countermeasures. Recently, Beijing 2022 decided that tickets for the Games will be sold exclusively to spectators residing in China's mainland while the IOC changed its accredited guest policy by cancelling the accompanying guest category for all stakeholders.

As the Chinese government and the IOC hope to reduce human rights damages prior to the Games, politicians in several countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the EU member states, are having an ongoing debate on China’s human rights violations with the aim of deciding a so-called diplomatic boycott.

In July 2021, the US Senate passed a bill to ban imports from Xinjiang as a way to prevent forced labor in the region. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is seen as the first step in the direction of a US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games if the law passes the US House of Representatives and is signed by US President Biden.

In the same month, the European parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on diplomatic officials in EU member states to decline all government and diplomatic invitations to the Beijing Games unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation.

And in September 2021, a coalition of over 200 global campaign groups wrote an open letter to Olympic broadcasters in which the broadcasters were urged to immediately cancel their broadcasting deals unless they want to be ‘at serious risk of being complicit in China’s plan to sport wash the severe and worsening human rights abuses in the country’.

UN: No meaningful access to Xinjiang
But to human rights defenders, the most promising step in the Olympic boycott battle over China’s war on terror in Xinjiang came when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on September 13 promised that a UN report on the alleged human rights crimes in Xinjiang will be made public no later than five weeks ahead of the opening ceremony of the Games in Beijing on February 4.

“I regret that I am not able to report progress on my efforts to seek meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Bachelet said at the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council. She had failed to secure a visit to Xinjiang three months after saying she planned to verify the reports of China’s alleged violations against Uyghur and other Muslim minority groups in the region.

“In the meantime, my Office is finalising its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public by the end of the year.”

To Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson, the High Commissioner’s statement on the UN efforts to seek meaningful access to investigate the allegations of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang sends a strong message that no country is above international law:

“Bachelet’s announcement is a critical step suggesting that Beijing’s reign of impunity might, at long last, be coming to an end,” Richardson wrote in a comment to the UN statement.

HRW China Director: The world knows differently now
Considering the multiple boycott campaigns and the political tension around the Olympic Winter Games, Play the Game has asked the Human Rights Watch China Director to explain the difference between Beijing 2008 and Beijing 2022.

Her answers leave no doubt that China’s human rights violations are much worse today than prior to the Games in 2008, largely because of China’s political leader since 2013, Xi Jinping.

“Under Xi Jinping’s presidency there has been such an enormous assault. In 2008, we were talking about whether and where people could protest around the Games. That is not even up for discussion this time around,” Richardson says.

“Last time, we were welcoming the commitment that foreign journalists would have more freedom to travel and report on China. Now, many foreign correspondents have been kicked out of the country in the last year and the question is whether athletes who bring their own devices can expect to have privacy in their comments and correspondence on social media platforms that barely existed in 2008.”

On the list of Olympic challenges in China, Richardson also mentions environmental concerns and public health concerns in China along with an aggressive nationalism that some Chinese athletes exposed at the Tokyo Games this summer when they wore badges with an image of China’s former leader Mao Zedung.

But she thinks that the world knows differently now, and that the scope and the scale of the Chinese government’s human rights violations are going to have a very negative impact reputationally on both Beijing and on the Games between now and February and afterwards.

“It is now a lively discussed issue about diplomatic boycotts of these games. And we live in a time where athlete activism such as taking a knee and wearing certain clothes or making certain kinds of statements have a very powerful influence on public opinion far beyond people who are sport fans. These things are much more closely linked now.”

Besides that, Richardson believes that a lot of athletes are very uncomfortable with the idea of competing in this kind of environment but also have no say in where the games are held.

“All of these different factors will make the Chinese government’s human rights violations a much more visible part of the debate amongst governments, politicians, athletes, and the public.”

Beijing 2008: A fantastic trial run
Prior to Beijing 2008, Human Rights Watch had many meetings and dialogues with the IOC on human rights in China. But prior to Beijing 2022, Richardson has only held one virtual meeting with IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.:

“I honestly don’t see much point in spending more time talking with the IOC. It is like talking to a machine. They have been patronising to some of our partners in Tibet and Xinjiang which is distressing, and they have shown nothing but disdain for some of the most serious human rights crimes that exist.”

According to Richardson, the Chinese government used the Olympic Games in 2008 as the basis for an expansion of the domestic security apparatus that never was rolled back.

“The 2008 Games was in many ways a fantastic trial run by Beijing at not just holding a big splashy international event but getting away with human rights abuses conducted so that they could hold the big splashy international event and having everybody applaud them.”

She doubts that any other Olympic host country with China’s human rights records would have gotten away with that.  

“Here is the second most powerful government in the world, a permanent member of the UN security council, and it is arbitrarily detaining a million people because of their identity. I think we can easily assume that if any other government was doing that, we would be having a very different conversation about investigations and accountability. It says a lot about the Chinese government’s power in the world today that it has managed to hold that off.”

Global Athlete: Athletes are being used as pawns
Regardless of the serious human rights violations in China, Human Rights Watch is not supporting calls for a full boycott that would keep athletes from competing. And Global Athlete, an international movement aiming to inspire athletes and drive change across the world of sport, is not happy either with athletes being caught in the Olympic boycott battle.

“As governments call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, once again athletes are being used as pawns. The IOC and IPC first and foremost are to blame for putting athletes in this position,” Global Athlete Director General Rob Koehler says to Play the Game.

“Similar discussions of a boycott occurred prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics which is a clear display that the Olympic movement has not changed. To avoid these situations from ever occurring again, governments and National Olympic Committees must display leadership in demanding that the Olympic and Paralympic movements reform.”

Koehler urges the IOC to fully rescind the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50.2 and allow athletes freedom of expression, which would permit and protect the athletes’ ability to peacefully protest in Beijing.

“Many athletes do not want a boycott, but if a boycott can improve their rights and result in better conditions for athletes in the future, they might be in favor. Most athletes want to leave sport in a better condition than they found it.”

Does Global Athlete recommend athletes to boycott the Beijing Games?

“It is not for Global Athlete to determine if athletes should boycott, this is their decision.”

In four months, the world will know what the athletes decided. Play or protest? Either way, the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing are almost certain to be remembered in Olympic history books as the ‘Genocide Games’.

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