China is destroying promised liberties in Hong Kong, committing genocide in Xinjiang, and oppressing more people than any other authoritarian regime in the world. Apparently, these horrors do not matter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as Beijing is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
The IOC has a weak record regarding cracking down on human rights abuses; in 1936, the games were held in Berlin under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Neither the US nor the rest of the world can expect any moral clarity from the IOC. As such, the US should initiate an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics if it wants to send a real signal to the Chinese government that its actions are unacceptable.
Some leading figures have called for a full boycott, but a full boycott would devastate US athletes who have trained their whole lives for these games. An economic and diplomatic boycott, as Mitt Romney suggested in a March 2021 New York Times opinion, would carry similar symbolic weight to a true boycott without harming US athletes.
By enacting an economic and diplomatic boycott, the US would commit itself not to send any spectators or diplomats to Beijing. This sort of partial boycott would allow the US to redirect all American capital related to the games to satellite venues in the States. Fans could watch the events without injecting money into the Chinese economy by spending their money in Beijing.
Some might ask why it’s important for America to take a stand against China at the Olympics. The reason is simple: if the US competes in Beijing with no protest, we will give the world’s largest authoritarian regime a two-week worldwide propaganda platform.
The Olympics would not be the sort of overt propaganda the Chinese government spreads within its own borders, but rather an exercise of Chinese soft power. China promotes its global image by associating itself with positive initiatives like economic investment with the Belt and Road Initiative, education with Confucius Institutes, and panda diplomacy, a policy that involves the Chinese government strategically sending pandas to zoos in countries around the world.
At the upcoming Winter Olympics, China will most likely put on a great show, as they did at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The government will try to awe viewers around the world through athletic and artistic spectacles in an attempt to improve China’s global image. Considering all of China’s human rights abuses, the US government cannot hand them a propaganda coup without protest.
Olympic boycotts are not unprecedented. Prior to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tested the strategy of a détente, or an easing of tension, with the Soviet Union. They aimed to “create a stable structure of peace.” Both countries reduced the number of nuclear weapons they held and withdrew troops from former battle zones.
The American stance hardened when, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, re-escalating Cold War tensions. President Jimmy Carter set a February 20, 1980 deadline for the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. When they ignored his request, President Carter led more than 50 other countries in a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
While the full boycott detracted from the games, the Soviets remained in Afghanistan for another decade. The US cost their athletes the chance to compete on the international stage and did not provoke any real change.
Furthermore, the United States boycotted the Olympics because the Soviet Union displayed a blatant lack of regard for détente when they invaded Afghanistan. China’s recent actions display a similar tendency to the Soviets. In 2021, the UK accused the Chinese government of breaking the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration in which the Chinese promised to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy until at least 2047. In this way, the situation in Hong Kong is parallel to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Like the Soviets, the Chinese have assaulted a people’s sovereignty without any regard for international promises.
In another example, in the 1970s, the United Nations called for a sporting embargo against South Africa because of apartheid. Despite this move, New Zealand allowed the South African rugby team to tour New Zealand.
As a result of New Zealand’s failure to uphold the sporting embargo against apartheid South Africa, twenty-two countries, a majority of which were African, called upon the IOC to ban New Zealand from the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. The IOC refused, and those same countries chose to boycott the Montreal games.
The current situation in Xinjiang shows a similar lack of regard for human rights as that shown by the South African apartheid government. Currently, China is committing genocide against Uighur Muslims, according to an independent report by more than 50 experts. While New Zealand simply disobeyed the embargo against apartheid South Africa, China is actively persecuting a large minority population. If New Zealand deserved to be boycotted, then China most certainly deserves it as well.
If the US acquiesces and overlooks the Chinese regime’s human rights abuses to participate in the games, then it delegitimizes its previous criticisms of the Chinese government. The US would signal that the fallout of a boycott outweighs the gravity of genocide.
In that case, either the United States does not take genocide seriously, prioritizes economic interests over human rights, or was hyperbolic when they accused China of genocide. Regardless, sending spectators to games will not reflect well on the US. Worse, it would signify to the international community that the United States is unwilling to stand up to China in even the most basic ways.
By boycotting the Olympic Games, the US would illuminate China’s cruelty, and the Chinese government would realize that they will not be able to have normal diplomatic relationships with the US if they continue their cruel policies. The IOC and other international organizations would also realize that they cannot simply kowtow to Beijing in the future, as they might risk angering the United States and its allies. We must remember the 1.4 billion people who are subjected to the Chinese regime, the nearly eight million people in Hong Kong who had their freedom destroyed last year, and the millions of Muslim minorities detained in Xinjiang. The stakes are far greater than that of the Olympic games. It is a matter of life and death for over a billion people.
Image credit: Inside the Games
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