Should the United States and other democracies participate in a Winter Olympics hosted by a government that both the Trump and Biden administrations have said is engaged in genocide?
The debate over whether to boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics is heating up, for the Games open next February. The Biden administration says it is not currently discussing a boycott with allies, but 180 human rights organizations have jointly suggested one, and there are also discussions in Canada and Europe about whether to attend.
Olympic officials and business leaders protest that the Games are nonpolitical, but that is disingenuous. Of course they’re political. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is hosting the Olympics for political reasons, to garner international legitimacy even as he eviscerates Hong Kong freedoms, jails lawyers and journalists, seizes Canadian hostages, threatens Taiwan and, most horrifying, presides over crimes against humanity in the far western region of Xinjiang that is home to several Muslim minorities.
It’s reasonable to wonder: If baseball’s All-Star Game shouldn’t be played in Georgia because of that state’s voter suppression law, should the Olympics be held in the shadow of what many describe as genocide?
But first let’s ask: Is what’s happening in China truly “genocide”?
Journalists, human rights groups and the State Department have documented a systematic effort to undermine Islam and local culture in Xinjiang. Perhaps 1 million people have been confined to what amount to concentration camps. Inmates have been tortured, and children have been removed from families to be raised in boarding schools and turned into loyal communist subjects. Mosques have been destroyed, and Muslims ordered to eat pork. Women have been raped and forcibly sterilized.
There is no mass murder in Xinjiang, as is necessary for the popular definition of genocide and for some dictionary definitions. Yet the 1948 Genocide Convention offers a broader definition that includes causing serious “mental harm,” preventing births or “forcibly transferring children,” when part of a systematic effort to destroy a particular group.
The upshot is that repression in Xinjiang doesn’t qualify as genocide as the term is normally used, but it does meet the definition in the international convention.
As for the Beijing Games, here’s my bottom line: Athletes should participate and television should broadcast the competition, but government officials and companies should stay out of it. And I hope athletes while in Beijing will use every opportunity to call attention to repression in Xinjiang or elsewhere.
The blunt truth is that a much-watched Olympics give the world leverage to highlight human rights abuses and raise the cost of repression. We should use that leverage.
Full boycotts, as the United States pursued of the 1980 Moscow Games and Russia undertook of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, have largely failed. But a partial boycott, keeping officials and corporations away while sending athletes and fortifying them to speak up, can express disapproval while seizing a rare opportunity to highlight Xi Jinping’s brutality before the world.
Companies that have already paid for sponsorships of the Games would be losers, but that’s because they and the International Olympic Committee failed to push China to honor the human rights pledges it made when it won the Games. And in any case, a corporate association with what critics have dubbed the “Genocide Olympics” might not be such a marketing triumph.
“Instead of ‘higher, faster, stronger,’ what these companies are getting is ‘unjust incarceration, sexual abuse and forced labor,’ ” said Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch.
“There are a lot of tools beside a boycott,” Worden added. “The world’s attention is turning to Beijing, and the single greatest point of pressure on Xi Jinping’s China may be the Winter Olympics.”
In the 2006 Olympics, skater Joey Cheek used a news conference after he won a gold medal to call attention to genocide in Darfur; winning athletes next year could do the same for Xinjiang.
The IOC has tried to ban human rights symbols and gestures as un-Olympian, but that’s ridiculous. The most famous gestures in Olympic history came in 1968 when sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black power protest; denounced for years, they are now celebrated as moral leaders and have been inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Athletes who wore “Save Xinjiang” or “End the Genocide” T-shirts next year might get into trouble with Olympic officials, but some day they, too, would be regarded as heroes.
Canadians are debating a boycott of the Games, but more could be accomplished if Canada resolved to send athletes and allowed them to wear shirts or buttons honoring the “Two Michaels” — Canadian citizens whom China has taken hostage and brutally mistreated. That might be more likely to free the men than any Canadian boycott.
The Olympics give us leverage. Instead of throwing it away, let’s make Xi Jinping fear every day how we might use it.