A growing number of Western lawmakers and human rights groups are calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in response to burgeoning evidence of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a remote autonomous region in northwestern China. Human rights experts say that at least one million Muslims are being detained in hundreds of internment camps. Pictured: Senior officials of the organizing committee of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics raise a toast at an event held for international media on April 12, 2021 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A growing number of Western lawmakers and human rights groups are calling for a boycott of the next Winter Olympics, set to take place in Beijing in February 2022.
The calls for a boycott have come in response to burgeoning evidence of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a remote autonomous region in northwestern China. Human rights experts say that at least one million Muslims are being detained in hundreds of internment camps, where they are subject to torture, mass rapes, forced labor and sterilizations.
Anger is also simmering over China's political repression in Hong Kong, Tibet and Inner Mongolia; its increased intimidation of Taiwan; its threats to its other neighbors; as well as its continued lack of transparency over the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of more than three million people around the world, according Johns Hopkins University.
Boycott options include: 1) moving the Winter Olympics to another country; 2) an athletic boycott — prohibiting athletes from participating in the Games; 3) a diplomatic boycott — barring senior political representatives from travelling to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony; 4) an economic boycott — pressuring multinational corporations to cancel multi-million dollar Olympic sponsorship deals; or 5) a media boycott — limiting television coverage of the Games, thus depriving China of an important propaganda tool in the West.
Regardless of what transpires, China's human rights record is sure to be the focus of increased scrutiny during the months leading up to the Games.
The global boycott campaign is being led by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of more than 100 legislators from 13 countries who are working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China. IPAC's co-chair, British MP Sir Ian Duncan Smith, has repeatedly called on governments around the world to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics as punishment for China's human rights abuses. He said:
"We're dealing with a government of intolerance, dictatorial, brooks no dissent, arrests people at a drop of a hat. I think there's a very strong case to be made that China should not be rewarded for its astonishingly bad behavior."
In August 2020, the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the world's largest group of exiled ethnic Uyghurs, called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reconsider holding the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, citing what it said is evidence of crimes against humanity committed in China's Xinjiang region.
In a formal complaint to the IOC's Ethics Commission, the WUC said that the IOC had "acted in breach of the Olympic Charter by failing to reconsider holding the 2022 Olympics in Beijing following verifiable evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity taking place against the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims by the People's Republic of China."
In September 2020, a coalition of more than 160 human rights groups demanded that the IOC "reverse its mistake in awarding Beijing the honor of hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2022." In a letter, the coalition said:
"The IOC must recognize that the Olympic spirit and the reputation of the Olympic Games will suffer further damage if the worsening human rights crisis, across all areas under China's control, is simply ignored....
"The IOC's reputation was indelibly tarnished by its mistaken belief that the 2008 Olympics would work to improve China's human rights record. In reality the prestige of hosting the Olympic Games merely emboldened the Chinese government's actions and, since then, we have witnessed a gross increase on the assault on communities living under its rule: the construction of an Orwellian surveillance state in occupied Tibet, the incarceration of between 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs, the recent demolition of 'One Country Two Systems' in Hong Kong that breach multiple international laws and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the erasure of Southern Mongolian culture and language, the ongoing military intimidation and geopolitical bullying of Taiwan, and the detention, disappearance and death of countless Chinese lawyers, feminists, democracy activists, and anyone else deemed a threat by the Chinese Communist Party....
"Despite appeals from frontline communities and human rights groups, the IOC has repeated the same mistakes as the past and remained unresponsive to evidence of the sharp decline in human rights protections before and after the 2008 Games in Beijing; evidence that illustrates that the 2022 Games will also have no positive impact on China's adherence to human rights standards, and could even contribute to more repression."
In February 2021, in the largest coordinated boycott effort to date, a coalition of more than 180 human rights groups called on world leaders to boycott the Winter Games in Beijing. In a letter, the coalition said:
"At the end of July 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Beijing as the host city for the 2022 Winter Games. Since then — and despite claims by the IOC and Beijing Olympic Committee that the Games will serve as a catalyst for progress — President Xi Jinping has unleashed an unrelenting crackdown on basic freedom and human rights....
"The IOC refused to listen in 2008, defending its decision with claims that they would prove to be a catalyst for improved human rights. As human rights experts predicted, this decision proved to be hugely misplaced; not only did China's human rights record not improve but violations increased substantially without rebuke.
"Now, in 2021, we find ourselves back in the same position with the IOC who are refusing to act despite the clear evidence of genocide and widespread and worsening human rights failures.
"It now falls on governments to take a stand and demonstrate that they have the political will to push back against China's reprehensible human rights abuses.
"We therefore call on governments to boycott the Beijing 2022 Games — anything less will be seen as an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian rule and blatant disregard for civil and human rights."
"We can only repeat and give advice to learn from history — a boycott of the Olympic Games has never achieved anything.
"Be mindful of the boycott in Moscow in 1980 because of the intervention of the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 — nine years after.
"So, it really served nothing but punishing the athletes and then led to the counter-boycott in Los Angeles. It also has no logic, why would you punish the athletes from your own country if you have a dispute with athletes from another country? This just makes no real sense. The athletes would be the ones who are suffering."
German Greens MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, a vocal proponent of a boycott, countered:
"I think the IOC is not a sports organization, but a business that uses athletes. I think we have to remind the IOC that it has a social responsibility like any company. The starting point for me would be that before 2008, when Beijing was allowed to host the Summer Games, efforts were still made to obtain certain concessions from [Chinese] authorities, for example with regard to the unrestricted freedom of movement of journalists throughout the country.
"I do not know that the IOC would insist on at least the same commitments today as it did twelve years ago. I would also like to start a critical debate with many top politicians about this: Do you absolutely have to stage a beautiful sports event against the background of totalitarian oppression? And I would also like to talk to the sponsors: Do you really think you have to earn your money by closing your eyes to these unbearable conditions? Do you have to sully your own name by complicity with it?"
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, added:
"The IOC knows the Chinese authorities are arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs and other Muslims, expanding state surveillance, and silencing numerous peaceful critics. Its failure to publicly confront Beijing's serious human rights violations makes a mockery of its own commitments and claims that the Olympics are a 'force for good.'"
Growing Calls for a Boycott
- United Kingdom, April 23. The House of Commons unanimously passed a non-binding motion declaring that the Chinese government is perpetrating genocide against Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang. The motion is intended, among other aims, to increase pressure on the UK government to clarify its stance on the Beijing Olympics.
- United Kingdom, April 23. MP Layla Moran tweeted: "A diplomatic boycott of next year's Beijing Winter Olympics would send a clear message. We've had enough hand-wringing and prevaricating. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. The genocide against the Uyghurs cannot be ignored."
- United States, April 21. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the "Strategic Competition Act of 2021" by 21-1. If approved by the 100-member Senate, the bipartisan bill, aimed at counting China, would force a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics by U.S. officials, but not athletes.
- United States, April 21. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2021 annual report, recommended that the U.S. government "publicly express concerns about Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and state that U.S. government officials will not attend the games if the Chinese government's crackdown on religious freedom continues."
- Germany, April 18. Free Democratic Party MP Gyde Jensen, in an interview with the newspaper Die Welt, said: "Anyone who remains silent about the most serious human rights violations, such as those in Xinjiang, is also making a political statement. It would be a fatal sign if top German politicians would do the Communist Party a favor and allow themselves to be turned into part of a propaganda story through their public appearance at the Olympics."
- Germany, April 18. Greens MP Margarete Bause said: "The Chinese state has been perpetrating systematic crimes against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang for years. In Hong Kong, in front of the world's eyes, international law is being broken and opposition members are sentenced to arbitrary prison terms. The world must not overlook these crimes. The Olympic Games must be politically ostracized. I expect the sponsors not to make themselves complicit with a totalitarian regime that tramples on human rights."
- United States, March 15. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: "The Olympics are an expression of freedom and athletic talent. To hold them in Beijing, while the CCP is committing crimes against democracies around the world, is completely inappropriate."
- Finland, March 8. Green MEP Alviina Alametsa said: "I hope that all the EU countries could get together to decide to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics. It is positive that the EU has condemned China's human rights violations. We now have to choose what are the lines that China cannot cross without consequences."
- United States, March 4. A group of seven U.S. senators, led by Rick Scott (R-FL), introduced a resolution calling on the IOC to move the 2022 Winter Olympics out of China and rebid it to another country unless Beijing addresses its violation of human rights.
- United States, February 28. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, tweeted: "We must boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. It would be a terrible loss for our athletes, but that must be weighed against the genocide occurring in China and the prospect that empowering China will lead to even greater horrors down the road."
- The Netherlands, February 25. The Dutch parliament passed a non-binding motion saying the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China amounts to genocide. It was the first such move by a European country. The author of the motion, lawmaker Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of the center-left D-66 Party, separately called on the IOC to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing.
- Canada, February 22. Canada's House of Commons voted 266-0 to declare China's treatment of its Uyghur minority population a genocide. Lawmakers also passed an amendment asking Canada to call on the IOC to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing "if the Chinese government continues this genocide."
- Canada, February 16. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called for the relocation of the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing: "I think Canadians would agree that it would violate universal fundamental ethical principles to participate in an Olympic Games hosted by a country that is committing a genocide against part of its population. Canada must take a stand."
- United Kingdom, February 8. Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party, in an interview with LBC radio, said: "I think that the Government should boycott the Olympics. Given the nature of all that is going on, the appalling behavior of China across a whole range of issues. Sadly it's not just what I believe to be the genocide of the Uyghurs. It's also the fact they have got half a million Tibetans in forced labor camps, and they have been attacking Christians, killed some Indian soldiers on their border the other day and have taken over south China sees and are now beginning to decree that those from Inner Mongolia, which is part of China, cannot speak their own language and of course Hong Kong, where they just simply decided to trash their agreement with us."
- Canada, February 7, 2020. An open letter signed by 13 MPs, a half-dozen Quebec politicians and others called for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved outside China. The letter demanded that the IOC relocate the global competition to avoid having athletes "tainted" by an event that legislators said would be comparable to the 1936 Berlin games under the Nazi regime, rendering it "The Games of Shame."
- Australia, November 9, 2020. Senators Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick proposed a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on human rights grounds. The motion was voted down.
- United Kingdom, October 6, 2020. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that a UK boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics was possible due to Uyghur abuses: "Generally speaking, my instinct is to separate sport from diplomacy and politics, but there comes a point when it is not possible."
- United States, September 3, 2020. The Washington Post Editorial Board wrote: "The world must ask whether China, slowly strangling an entire people, has the moral standing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. We think not."
- Canada, June 9, 2020. Canada's former top diplomat to Hong Kong, John Higginbotham, called on the Canadian government to boycott the Beijing Olympics: "Winter Games are in February, 2022, not long from now. China wants them badly as the latest pageant of national power and prestige. Canada should organize a boycott of those Games unless China lays off Hong Kong. Winter Olympics are easier to organize a boycott than Summer. Medals are concentrated in a few friendly, cold, democratic countries."
- United States, October 10, 2018. The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), in a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach, urged him "to take steps to reassign" the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing given "credible reports of the mass, arbitrary internment of one million or more Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities" and other gross violations of universally recognized rights, "which may constitute crimes against humanity."
United States Remains Divided
On April 6, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said that the United States was considering joining with allies to boycott 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. "A coordinated approach will not only be in our interest but also in the interest of our allies and partners," he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian threatened retaliation:
"I stress once again that the allegation of 'forced labor' in Xinjiang is the most outrageous lie of the century.... The wheels will come off for the U.S. if it continues to turn a blind eye to facts and truth, and attack and malign China based on deliberate lies. This will ... meet with the resolute opposition of the Chinese people and the forceful responses from the Chinese side."
The Biden Administration quickly backtracked: "Our position on the 2022 Olympics has not changed," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners."
The apparent contradiction is eliciting a response by lawmakers who are demanding that the United States boycott the Games. The issue of human rights in China is emerging as a key foreign policy issue ahead of the American midterm elections set for November 2022.
On April 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the "Strategic Competition Act of 2021" by a vote of 21-1. If approved by the 100-member Senate, the bipartisan bill, aimed at counting China, would mandate a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics by U.S. officials. Under the legislation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken could waive the boycott if the situation warrants.
On April 15, a bipartisan group of American lawmakers called for the United States to boycott the 2022 Winter Games. In a roundtable — sponsored by U.S. Congressman Michael Waltz (R-FL), co-hosted with Congressmen Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) and Tom Malinowski (D- NJ), and joined by former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, and various human rights organizations — participants discussed human rights abuses being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kong, and other groups.
After the roundtable, Waltz tweeted:
"We can't in good conscience let the U.S. aid in whitewashing the #CCP's genocide and mass sterilization taking place in Xinjiang & Tibet AND the human rights abuses in Hong Kong. We must #BoycottBeijing2022."
U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) added:
"It is completely inappropriate for the [International Olympic Committee] to be holding Olympic Games in a country that is in the process of committing what the State Department, what the Biden Administration, has termed a genocide."
U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has argued that a boycott is insufficient; he has called for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to be moved out of Beijing altogether. In a February 25 letter to the White House, he wrote:
"I write to you today to make clear that the horrific human rights abuses perpetrated by China's communist government against its own people cannot be ignored. Under no circumstance should the global community give Communist China an international platform to whitewash its crimes, which is what will happen if they are allowed to host the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing."
In a subsequent letter addressed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Scott wrote:
"I encourage you to join me in calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the 2022 Olympics Games out of Beijing. Governments and international organizations have the ability and responsibility to address human rights concerns, and calling on the IOC to move the 2022 Olympics Games out of Beijing is the right course of action.
"To be clear, I do not support a boycott. Boycotting these games will only hurt athletes who have spent their lives training to represent their country on the international stage. Instead, it should be the position of all democratic nations that the IOC can and should move the 2022 Games to a nation that respects human rights."
Scott has made similar requests of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and French President Emmanuel Macron.
U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) has argued that a full boycott of the Beijing Games would unfairly harm American athletes. Instead, he has called for a targeted economic and diplomatic boycott. In a March 15 opinion article, published by the New York Times, he wrote:
"Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer. Our athletes have trained their entire lives for this competition and have primed their abilities to peak in 2022.... It would be unfair to ask a few hundred young American athletes to shoulder the burden of our disapproval....
"The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. American spectators — other than families of our athletes and coaches — should stay at home, preventing us from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets. American corporations that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games should send them to U.S. venues instead.
"Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us.... [Romney overlooks the fact that the Chinese government severely restricts free speech and dissidents are subject to arrest, torture and often lengthy detention.]
"We should enlist our friends around the world to join our economic boycott. Limiting spectators, selectively shaping our respective delegations and refraining from broadcasting Chinese propaganda would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics."
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), in an opinion article, "Don't Boycott China Olympics," added:
"To be clear, I and many others hope that the International Olympic Committee comes to its senses and moves the 2022 Olympic Winter Games out of Beijing. As someone who was sanctioned twice by the government of China, I am flabbergasted that the IOC would ever give this human rights-abusing, free speech-repressing, trade-and-currency manipulating set of totalitarians who make up the Chinese Communist Party the honor of hosting the Olympic Games in the first place. Here's hoping that reason prevails and the Games are sent to any place but China.
"That said, we have tried this boycott business before, and it utterly failed....
"The worst thing we can do to stand up to China is to keep our athletes home. As anyone who has ever faced down a bully knows, when you decide to hide and not to fight, the bully wins.
"Our athletes should go to Beijing next year proudly, bring home medal after medal, and show the world what it means to compete on behalf of a free society. We shouldn't give China an easy way to run up its medal count by preventing Americans from going to the Olympics."
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in an essay, "Biden Should Boycott China's Winter Olympics Next Year," countered:
"Given Communist China's direction, it could soon become what Nazi Germany was in the 1940s. It is not a country the United States should glorify through participation in the Winter Olympics.
"President Xi Jinping wants the propaganda boost of the games. He remembers well the widespread praise China received after hosting the Summer Olympics in 2008. Symbolism matters, and if the United States and other free nations participate in Beijing 2022, the Chinese Communist Party will claim it as further proof of China's good global standing and world leadership.
"But if the United States boycotts the Winter Olympics, it will send an unmistakable message that China's tyranny and threats are unacceptable. It will show that actions have consequences....
"Some will say U.S. athletes should be allowed to compete after years of training. While my heart would break for our great athletes, their concerns must be weighed against the suffering of millions of people, and the millions more under threat. Individual and national athletic glory are not as important as upholding America's guiding principles....
"When you let your counterpart get away with genocide, which is literally true of China, you're negotiating from a position of weakness. If you stand strong on non-negotiable issues, you're in a position of strength. Ignoring China's evil actions is no way to stop those actions in the future, much less make progress on other critical security and economic issues.
"A boycott is in the best interests of the United States and our principles. It would be even better if Biden urged America's allies to join us."
Glacier Kwong, a human rights activist from Hong Kong who is currently residing in Germany, in an article, "Beijing Genocide Olympics," published by Die Welt, concluded:
"This is not about 'opposing views' between countries. There is no room for a middle ground. Either you make yourself an accomplice by closing your eyes, or you stand up for the values that are close to your heart — such as freedom and democracy."