UIghurs, Tibetans and Hongkongers protest in the United States against the Beijing Winter Olympics. Photo: ANI

The Biden administration and other Western governments are deciding whether to boycott the Winter Olympics scheduled next year in China to protest against Beijing’s human rights record.

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 the tightening of civil rights in China.

The most likely choice is a diplomatic snubbing: 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: “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 piled 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 on 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.”

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, on screen, delivers an opening speech at a meeting of the IOC Coordination Commission for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto listens, in Tokyo on May 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno

IOC vice-president Dick Pound suggested the Olympics will 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 activities.

Political intrusion has long been a feature of the Summer Olympics, the much larger companion of the Winter Games. Summertime cases in point are the 1936 Nazi-hosted 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 politically roiled the Winter Olympics save one: the 1936 contests hosted by Adolf Hitler and held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in February the same year Germany later hosted the Summer Games.

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 contests went on. Foreign reviews were mostly positive – although 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 soldiers and SS troops at a supposedly “great demonstration of international friendship.”

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

Hitler at the Winter Olympics in 1936. Photo: Wikipedia

Historical analogies are imperfect, and Beijing fiercely rejects any criticism likening its action to tyranny or complaints 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 published stories criticizing any form of symbolic censure almost daily since mid-November, when Biden first broached the subject.

For international 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.

Human Rights Watch 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: “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.”

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

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

The vaunted Olympic feel-good factor recently has been 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.

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 protesters. 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.

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 made mea culpa that showed he apparently knows nothing of comedy: “I should not have made that comment,” he intoned. “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.

Rome-based veteran foreign correspondent Daniel Williams also has done a stint as a Human Rights Watch investigator.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.