Faster, Higher, Crueler? The Olympics vs. Human Rights in China

The Biden Administration and other Western governments are deciding whether to boycott the Winter Olympics scheduled next year in China to protest its human rights record.

Calls are being made for country to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics due to human rights issues ©Getty Images

Beijing says jump. International Olympic Committee says how high?

To attend the ceremonies in Beijing, the thinking goes, would mean overlooking, if not endorsing, the mass persecution of the Muslim Uighur minority in China’s far northwest, the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong and tightening of civil rights in China.

The most likely choice is a diplomatic snub: sending no government representatives to the games. No one is contemplating forbidding athletes to take part.

Pressure from human rights organizations and legislatures has become relentless. Scores of groups that support Uighur, Tibetan and/or Hong Kong rights urge a boycott. Amnesty International stopped short of calling for a formal spurn, but suggested that, “Human rights need to be a main focus of interest this winter in Beijing…Among the many human rights violations committed by the Chinese authorities, their systematic violations of the right to freedom of expression demand specific attention at the 2022 Olympics.”

Human Rights Watch poured on, and added China’s handling of the Covid outbreak to its litany of authoritarian sins. “China is the only Olympic host actively committing crimes against humanity. Chinese authorities initially covered up news about Covid-19 and the deaths of Chinese health workers, and then surveilled and harassed families of those who died of the virus,” it wrote.

HRW supports a diplomatic boycott. 

Legislators in the US Congress are considering a ban official US representation at the games. The European Parliament has passed a non-binding resolution to bar diplomatic presence at the festivities.

Australia and Canada say they are waiting to discuss the issue with allies (see: United States). Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister also called for the EU and governments of other democratic countries to coordinate.

The International Olympic Committee, which oversees the events and awards Olympic venues to countries, rejects linking the sports movement and local governance. “The Olympic Games are not about politics,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. “The International Olympic Committee, as a civil, non-governmental organization is strictly politically neutral at all times.”

Uighusr prisoners in what China calls a “vocational education and training center.”

IOC vice president Dick Pound suggested the Olympics would die if political virtue and vice are taken into account. “Where would you celebrate the Olympic Games if you take that kind of attitude?” he asked. “Our perspective on all of this is that no matter how complex and how conflicting views may exist among countries, we’re trying to steer a middle course here using sport as a means of communication.

He surmised that a boycott would “have no impact whatsoever” on China’s behavior.

The IOC recently changed its Olympic motto from “Faster, Higher Stronger” to “Faster, Higher, Stronger—Together” so the it “recognizes the unifying power of sport and the importance of solidarity.” Not always, though.

Political intrusions have long been a feature of the Summer Olympics, the much larger companion of the Winter games. Among them were the 1936 Nazi-hosted summer ones, the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, the US-led and widely followed boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Afghan invasion, and the revenge snub of Los Angeles, 1984, by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Nothing like those events roiled the Winter Olympics save at one: the 1936 contests hosted by Adolf Hitler and held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

The memory of that extravaganza hangs over the 2022 Beijing rendition.

By 1936, Mein Kampf had already been written, Jews were already persecuted and brown-shirted militias had terrorized political rivals of the Nazi Party. Nonetheless, Olympic overseers were determined to keep the contests in Garmisch, which had been awarded the games before Hitler took power.

Hitler viewed the Olympics as a showcase for German power and advancement. To help the IOC resist boycott calls, he ordered anti-Semitic posters taken down and invited one German Jewish emigre to come back from exile to play for the hockey team. The Bavarian town itself delayed a decreed expulsion of Jews until after the festivities ended.

The Games went on. Foreign reviews were mostly positive, though columns written by Westbrook Pegler, a well-known and acerbic columnist for the Washington Post, pointed out some sinister contradictions. He noted the heavy presence of solders and SS troops at a supposedly “great demonstration of international friendship.”

The German government complained, and Pegler responded with a satirical, fake apology. He must have misunderstood since, “any stranger is likely to make the same mistake” who observes men in uniforms wearing “tin hats” who also carry “harmless utensils which appear to be bayonets.”

Historical analogies are imperfect, and Beijing fiercely rejects any criticism likening its action to tyranny or that its bellicose comments regarding Taiwan are untoward. It already preempted concern about a diplomatic boycott since “China does not miss the presence of leaders or senior officials from the US or its allies,” according to the government run Global Times newspaper.

Nevertheless, Chinese irritation is evident. Global Times has daily has published stories criticizing any form of symbolic censure almost daily since mid-November, when Biden first broached the subject.

For human rights advocates, government boycotts are only one field of combat with China—and perhaps not even the main center of activism. Private corporations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Olympics through sponsorships, money that goes not only to both the host country and the IOC.

HRW has taken the lead in calling out global business sponsors for their silence on human rights issues. “The International Olympic Committee’s major corporate sponsors should explain publicly how they are using their leverage to address human rights abuses in China ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games,” HRW wrote in November.

The companies deny complicity in repression and fall back on virtuous platitudes associated with the Olympic marketing. Allianz, the German insurance and finance management company, touts its sponsorship as part of its “core values of excellence, friendship, inclusion and respect.”

“We stand behind the Olympic Movement and our longstanding support for its ideals will not waver,” it told HRW.

Omega, the “Olympic Games Official Timekeeper,” said that, “As a global brand, we are certainly aware of international tensions and monitor them carefully.…We sincerely believe that the Olympic Games is a perfect opportunity to meet on common ground in the spirit of unity.”

At a US Congressional hearing in July, companies defended their Olympics participation. “We want to support connections at a global scale,” said David Holyoke, head of Olympics and Paralympics partnerships at Airbnb. “The Olympic Games have shown that sports can accomplish this goal, bringing the world together through an incredible and inspirational athletic competition.”

Major sponsors pay up to $125 million a year for preferred commercial association with the games.

The mythical Olympic feel-good factor has been recently complicated by the disappearance of woman professional tennis star Peng Shuai from public view after she accused a high-ranking government official of sexual abuse.

IOC President and IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair hold video call with Peng Shuai

A Big Brother TV Production: The IOC meets missing tennis player Peng Shuai. 

When the Women’s Tennis Association along with some tennis players expressed alarm, China apparently feared the Winter Olympics might be in jeopardy. Peng was put in contact by video hookup with the IOC, not the WTA. WTA officials still want to speak to her privately.

China takes fierce umbrage at criticisms of its rights record, in or out of the sports world. Two years ago, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, tweeted support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors.

Chinese state TV stopped broadcasting NBA games and the Tencent streaming service cut off the Rockets, and later, the Philadelphia 76ers when Morley joined them. The NBA is estimated to have lost $200 million from the TV ban.

Last month, a Boston Celtics player, who once called Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator,” backed the liberation of Tibet. Tencent removed the Celtics from its streaming service, too.

Businesses have been punished for a variety of transgressions: Ad images perceived as insulting to the Chinese, references to Taiwan as anything but a part of China, suggestions that rights are abridged in China. Once, a US cable network was blocked because a comedian noted the resemblance of President Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh.

Last week Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase CEO, apologized after a remark he made in Hong Kong. “The Communist Party is celebrating its 100th year. So is JPMorgan. And I’ll make you a bet we last longer,” he said.

“I can’t say that in China,” he added. “They prob­a­bly are lis­ten­ing any­way.”

According to Bloomberg News, JPMorgan’s bank exposure to China was $19.7 billion as of September, “mainly from lending and deposits, trading and investing.”

Last week, Dimon produced  a mea culpa that basically showed he knows nothing about comedy: “I should not have made that comment…it’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people, whether it’s a country, its leadership, or any part of a society and culture.”

All this stroking of China follows not only the rise of China as an economic and military power but also the collapse of expectations that China’s entry into the wider commercial world would turn it toward liberal democracy. Granting China the 2008 Summer Olympics was a subset of that hope.

Now, everyone’s glad if China doesn’t get mad at something someone says. Let the games begin.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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