When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, many argued – or at least hoped – that international attention would improve human rights in China. It was not like that.
China is now part of another Olympic Games in Beijing, this time for the Winter Games next February. And it faces increasing calls for a boycott of its rights violations, from depriving Hong Kong of its promised democratic freedoms to the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
However, the world has changed since 2008. Virtually no one today believes that holding the Games will mitigate China’s behavior.
Back then, Chinese leaders at least promised concessions to basic democratic freedoms to show that they would be worthy hosts. The current leader, Xi Jinping, is far more confident, neither inclined nor forced to compromise. And China itself is no longer a rising capitalist power, but the second largest economy in the world, which is in direct competition with the United States for global influence.
Elected officials in the US, Canada and the UK have urged their countries to abstain from the Olympics, as have numerous human rights organizations. Others, like Freedom House, have said government officials, cultural workers and sponsors should refuse to attend even if the Games are taking place.
“Anything else is seen as an affirmation of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule and an apparent disregard for civil and human rights,” said a public letter written this month calling for a boycott. It was signed by more than 180 interest groups around the world, many of which focused on Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uighurs.
So far, no country has declared a boycott. The calls also met with opposition from the International Olympic Committee, whose charter addresses “the joy of effort, the educational value of a good example, social responsibility and respect for universal ethical principles”.
China’s economic influence alone carries more weight than ever before, including with international bodies such as the Olympic Committee and major supporters of the Games. China has also shown its willingness to use trade as an instrument of geopolitical coercion, as Australia has learned from a series of punitive measures against coal, wine and other exports.
Even exercise is not immune. The government suspended the National Basketball Association in China for a single tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests and did the same with a prominent English Premier League football team after one of its players denounced China’s treatment of Uyghurs.
“The Chinese government is now becoming more powerful and influential,” said Teng Biao, a lawyer who was arrested in Beijing in 2008 for criticizing the country’s preparations for the Games. “You have the leverage to sanction those who criticize the regime.”
The International Olympic Committee, like sponsors and broadcasters, has a lot to lose if the Games are sparsely attended.
“It is also clear that with these Olympics, we want to experience the passion and excellence of the sport and the excellence of the Chinese organization,” Committee President Thomas Bach told Xinhua State News Agency after a phone call to Mr. in January Xi to discuss Beijing’s latest preparations.
Beijing won the 2022 Games after several European cities knocked out in 2015 citing the high costs. China defeated the only other bidder, Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, another authoritarian country. The vote was 44:40.
Beijing, the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, isn’t exactly known for winter sports. China won its first gold medal in speed skating at the Winter Olympics in 2002. However, Mr. Xi decreed that the country would produce 300 million snow and ice enthusiasts – a goal that Olympic boss, Mr. Bach, stated fervently last month.
“Chinese Ice and Snow!” Mr. Xi cheered during a future Olympic site inspection that aired on video on February 4, marking the start of the country’s year-long countdown to the Games.
China has slashed its budget – estimated at $ 3 billion – by reusing some of the 2008 Summer Games cult sites, including the stadium known as the Bird’s Nest for the opening and closing ceremonies. The water cube, where swimming events took place, offers ice stock sport.
The outdoor ski events take place in two cities northwest of the capital, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which are now connected to Beijing by a new high-speed line and have reduced the journey to less than an hour. It doesn’t matter that the area typically only receives two inches of snow a year. The rest is made artificially.
China’s willingness to spend the money necessary to host the Games is part of what made it indispensable for the Olympic Committee. Mr. Teng, the lawyer who is now a professor at Hunter College in New York, was one of those who met with committee officials last October to ask for more pressure on China.
“They had no plan to bring basic human rights issues to the Chinese government,” he said. “And they won’t do that.”
The committee responded with a written statement attributable to an unnamed speaker. The committee has “neither the mandate nor the ability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country”.
China’s critics have made many of the same allegations that haunted the country before 2008. They cite the lack of political and religious freedoms, ubiquitous censorship, and longstanding oppression of Tibet, which it forcibly took up after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The raids in Hong Kong and Xinjiang that unfolded after the Beijing 2022 Games were awarded raised the stakes. China’s ongoing detention of two Canadians was arrested amid a dispute over an extradition warrant against an executive at telecommunications giant Huawei.
In one of its latest acts, the Trump administration declared that China’s actions in Xinjiang constituted genocide, a designation that added weight to the boycott campaign in the United States.
For critics, China’s behavior has created a challenge for both democratic nations and the Olympic Committee: If it doesn’t disqualify holding more than a million people in camps, what would it be?
Some have even compared the 2022 Olympics to those hosted by Nazi Germany in 1936, claiming that it is morally unreasonable to award the Games to a country accused of staging an ethnic group on a mass scale.
“It definitely makes people uncomfortable,” said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, which helped arrange the public letter calling for a boycott.
“I think more needs to be done to relate it to the 1936 Olympics and how we feel about it now,” she added. “It is very embarrassing that this should ever happen. And we’ll go into it again – this time with our eyes open. “
President Biden’s administration has signaled ambivalence about a boycott, even though some of his campaign advisors are said to have raised the boycott idea with other nations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested boycott was not yet an option. “We are not currently talking about changing our attitudes or plans regarding the Beijing Olympics,” she said.
The last major Olympic boycott was at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles; The Soviet Union and its allies stayed away from the event in retaliation for the United States-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The pressure on Beijing today is no different than the pressure on Russia ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. There was no boycott of these games, despite calling for a discriminatory new law criminalizing “homosexual propaganda,” but most of the world’s leaders did not attend.
Minky Worden, who has tracked China’s participation in the Olympics for Human Rights Watch for more than two decades, said a campaign against the 2022 Games could put pressure on sponsors and visitors.
“The boycott has a lot of symbolism, but it’s not the only arrow in the human rights community’s quiver,” she said.
For its part, China seems intrepid, even defiant.
“If a country is encouraged by extremist forces to take concrete action to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, China will definitely take violent retaliation,” said Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party newspaper, this month.
China is also preparing another Olympic bid, this time with the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing as potential hosts for the 2032 Summer Games.
Tariq Panja contributed to the coverage and Claire Fu contributed to the research.