The U.S. should coordinate a push for a diplomatic boycott the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing if China fails to address reports of genocide in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), as well as rights abuses in Tibet and Hong Kong, experts told lawmakers Tuesday.
At a joint hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) titled “China, Genocide and the Olympics,” experts warned that allowing Beijing to host the Games would amount to a tacit approval of its crimes against humanity in the XUAR, curtailing of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and widening assault on the culture and religion of Tibetans.
“If we don’t want to have a common destiny with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and his totalitarian regime, and if diplomats and dignitaries from the U.S. and its democratic allies don’t want to be part of Beijing’s propaganda spectacle … then we must send a clear message in opposition,” Yang Jianli, Founder and President of Citizen Power Initiatives for China told lawmakers.
“I am calling on the U.S. and its allies to do the following: initiate a joint political boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics; urge businesses and athletes not to participate in the Games; and, if they do participate, encourage them to find creative ways to express their condemnation of the CCP’s crimes against humanity.”
Yang said that in choosing Beijing to host the 2022 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) either decided to trust the Chinese government’s assurances that it would improve its rights record, or to “not care at all,” despite what he called “deplorable” efforts to do so ahead of Beijing hosting the Summer Olympics in 2008.
Before the IOC’s final decision in 2015 to choose China for the Winter Olympics next year, the committee said it had received new “assurances” by Beijing that it would lift restrictions on rights and “take all necessary measure to ensure the Olympic Charter,” however, reports suggest that little has been done to honor that commitment.
“In other words, it’s 2008 all over again. Actually, much worse,” he said.
In the years since the 2008 Games, Beijing has intensified its repression of groups it deems a “threat” to the power of the CCP. Since early 2017, authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR—part of what the U.S., Canada, The Netherlands, and the U.K. recently designated a state-backed policy of genocide in the region.
In recent years, Beijing has crushed pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and rolled out a draconian national security law in the territory, all while continuing to violate the religious and other rights of Tibetans.
Yang called for a “conditional boycott” that forces China to accept an independent and transparent United Nations investigation of reports of abuses in the XUAR and in Tibet, and release detained pro-democracy political figures and protesters in Hong Kong.
He said that in order for such an approach to be effective, “countries must be resolute in insisting that the degree of boycott should be determined based on how much these conditions are met before participating in the Games, and [be] ready to boycott the Games if they are not.”
Yang also urged the IOC to make public its evaluation of Beijing’s performance on human rights ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, as well as the assurances that led to its decision to award China the Games in 2022.
Exceeding worst expectations
Rayhan Asat, a human rights lawyer and sister of a camp detainee in the XUAR, suggested that the U.S. use the 2022 Games “as an opportunity” to demand that Beijing end its campaign of extralegal incarceration in the region, which she said will require a “united effort” from like-minded democracies.
If China refuses, she called for a diplomatic boycott of the Games, with no senior officials attending, and urged that members of impacted communities be given the opportunity to meet with athletes to discuss rights violations in the country.
Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, noted that her organization had opposed Beijing hosting the Olympics in 2008 because of the government’s rights record, but said “the current realities far exceed most analysts’ worst expectations.”
“In 2008, we had hoped that there might still be room for independent civil society activists to at least continue, if not also expand, their work; most of those courageous activists are now in prison, in exile, or forcibly disappeared,” she said.
“In 2008, we all assumed that transitions to subsequent authoritarian leaders would at least follow routinized practice; we now cannot predict when President Xi Jinping might end his tenure. And in 2008, none of us could have imagined the establishment–let alone the shocking expansion–of mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic communities, or of the pervasive surveillance technology deployed in an already rights-suppressed country.”
Richardson also called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games, with athletes celebrated in their home countries prior to their departure and after their return. She said governments should brief their athletes on what rights violations are occurring in China and support their right to express their views, even in ways that “irk the Chinese authorities.”
She said the international community must pressure the IOC, as well as sponsors and broadcasters, to carry out human rights due diligence ahead of the 2022 Olympics.
Holding China accountable
Tuesday’s hearing follows several measures taken by Washington in recent years to hold China accountable for its rights record.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump slapped sanctions on several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for violations in the XUAR, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment in June of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
In 2019, Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires the Department of State to review special trade status for the territory amid changes to its political status, and last year, approved the U.S. Support for Tibet Act, which acknowledges the legality of the exile Tibetan administration.
But despite the more forceful measures, as well as an endorsement of Trump’s designation of China’s policies in the XUAR amounting to genocide, President Joe Biden’s administration has so far dodged the question on whether the U.S. should participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Ahead of expert testimonies at the hearing on Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that the U.S. is obligated to boycott the Games if it hopes to project the moral authority to speak out against rights abuses around the globe.
“It’s about our values, it’s about who we are as a country,” she said. “it’s about more than words, it’s about actions.”
“I … have lost my innocence when expecting people to behave in a way that is consistent with their words when it comes to respecting human rights, but things have only gotten worse in China … and the [recognition of] genocide should be reason for us to change our actions,” Pelosi added, calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
“If we don’t speak out against human rights in China for commercial reasons, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere.”
‘Find a new host city—or boycott’
In bringing Tuesday’s hearing to order, Representative Chris Smith, who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, suggested that hosting the Games “isn’t about athletic competition—it’s about power” for Xi Jinping, and warned against aiding and abetting the CCP’s efforts to “revise the international order” and dictatorial governance by participating in them.
“Whatever were the paper commitments the government of the PRC made to the IOC with regards to respecting human rights when the IOC decided to award the games to China, it is now absolutely clear that it never intended to honor them,” he said.
“In granting Beijing host status for the Olympic Games, we are crowning a barbarous regime with laurels while we should be condemning their abuse and genocide … In light of what is now known—and in solidarity with the oppressed and not the oppressor, in solidarity with the victims and not the victimizer—I urge the IOC and all interested parties including the United States to find a new host city—or boycott.”
Representative James McGovern, who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Commission with Smith and is also co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, questioned why the international community is holding an Olympic Games during a genocide, and said the U.S. and other like-minded nations can no longer “proceed with business as usual.”
He noted that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo had been moved to this year only four months before it was scheduled to start due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we can postpone an Olympics by a year for a pandemic, we can surely postpone an Olympics for a year for a genocide,” he said, suggesting that doing so would “give the IOC time to relocate to a country whose government is not committing atrocities.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian last month dismissed reports about forced labor n the XUAR as “the most outrageous lie of the century” and slammed talk of an Olympics boycott.
"As to the so-called rhetoric about boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, I would also like to stress that politicization of sports runs counter to the spirit of the Olympic Charter and harms the interests of all athletes as well as the international Olympic cause.
"The international community, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, will not buy it.,” he told a news briefing in Beijing.