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Assessing the Playing Field for a Boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics Host Stadium for Beijing Winter Olympics / Bird’s Nest Via Flickr

Assessing the Playing Field for a Boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics

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With the Olympic flame in Tokyo now dimmed, eyes turn next to the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing in early 2022. Beijing was selected by the International Olympic Committee despite China’s documented human rights abuses leading up to the 2008 Olympics and a 2015 evaluation that cited concerns over mandatory citizen relocation and insufficient water resources. China reportedly reassured the IOC that certain standards of human rights and media freedoms would be maintained, but six years later, China has done little to prove it’s held to those commitments.

President Xi Jinping’s government has been persecuting dissidents and journalists, running campaigns to forcibly assimilate Tibetans, becoming increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea, and suppressing civil freedoms in Hong Kong. Most prominently, the Chinese Communist Party has led a repressive campaign against Uyghur Muslims, an ethnic minority group. Since 2017, over a million Uyghur have been imprisoned in detention camps. Those not detained live in a restrictive surveillance state. China maintains that the camps are “vocational training centers” meant to deter religious extremism and separatist ideas.

This January, the U.S. declared that China’s human rights violations amounted to explicit genocide and imposed sanctions and visa restrictions in response. The crimes against the Uyghurs continue to this day, however, and with the Winter Olympics looming, the U.S. faces a moral dilemma. Participating in the Olympics may give the appearance of implicitly endorsing China’s ongoing genocide and granting the country a chance to boost its image, but finding an effective alternative approach that holds the CCP accountable or deters its authoritarian behavior is not so clear-cut. Below is a discussion of options for U.S. policy on the 2022 Winter Olympics:

Full Boycott

Over 180 human rights advocacy organizations have called for a full boycott, which involves countries refusing to send athletes, representatives, and spectators to Beijing. A boycott would draw attention to China’s egregious human rights violations, encouraging other nations and organizations to repudiate the CCP and demand action. Ultimately, the U.S. and its allies would show that they prioritize the rights of oppressed minorities over medals.

However, international sporting events are not the most effective arena to challenge China. Analysts argue that skipping the Olympics will not deter China from committing further atrocities, even if the U.S. enlists allies to up the pressure on the CCP. Full-scale boycott plans are not currently supported by the Biden administration, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, or corporate sponsors. Finally, Olympic boycotts have historically been unpopular in the U.S., counterproductively hurting athletes more than the host countries and even prompting some athletes to sue.

Limited boycott: diplomatic

In a diplomatic boycott, world leaders and officials would not attend, leaving only athletes to arrive in Beijing. Any ambassadors on diplomatic missions in China would also be withdrawn and consulate functions suspended during the duration of the athletic event. Although more limited in scope and still unlikely to deter China, a diplomatic boycott has the benefit of symbolically condemning Beijing without punishing athletes.

This downsized boycott also enjoys much greater support, particularly from the U.S. Congress members like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Notably, a diplomatic boycott was included in a section of the bipartisan China competition bill passed by the Senate this June.

Limited boycott: economic

An economic boycott would attack China at the core: its revenue power. Other than the athletes’ and coaches’ families, American spectators would be encouraged to stay home to watch the games, thus avoiding contributing to China’s revenue. To have a greater impact, the U.S. must collaborate with its partners to enlist their support for the boycott. In March, Mitt Romney stated that this option “would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics.”

Collaboration with sponsors of the games would be another step in an economic boycott. In a recent hearing with the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, companies like Coca-Cola testified that while they support corporate social responsibility, their hands are tied due to the partnership agreements they committed to before the host city was selected. The U.S. can pressure these companies to issue remarks during the games expressing their concern about the Uyghur genocide, as well as encourage them to collaborate with non-profit organizations such as the World Uyghur Congress to amplify their corporate social responsibility efforts.

Postpone and relocate

Several politicians in the U.S., U.K., and EU have called for the 2022 Olympics to be moved to another country if China does not stop abusing human rights which “[discredit] the ethos of the Olympics movement and [undermine] its purpose.” Persuading the neutral IOC to postpone or relocate the Beijing Olympics will require a massive cooperative effort between the U.S. and other countries. The Tokyo Olympics were delayed, showcasing that the IOC could make it happen, but the reality is that the winter games are right around the corner and finding a city with the adequate infrastructure to host the games will be difficult.

Go anyway/increase publicity about China’s human rights abuses

Any boycott will have a minimal impact on the Chinese government’s prestige but an immense effect on the athletes that will not be able to compete after training for years. We saw this case with the failed 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott. Several allies supported the boycott but their Olympic committees sent all their athletes or a partial team to the games anyway. Understanding the limits of a boycott strategy, the U.S. could instead use the Olympics as a platform to exert democratic values.

The U.S. can utilize the media to expose China’s human rights abuses and provide the opportunity for journalists to put a spotlight on issues the CCP would prefer to ignore. NBC would be a great avenue, though viewership for the past Tokyo Olympics was significantly down and the network’s reach may be limited, especially internationally. The U.S. can also inspire athletes to exercise their influence, possibly through protest. The IOC has always outlawed this, but in the Tokyo Olympics, they loosened their rules, demonstrating some leeway for sending a message.

Moving forward

Any choice the Biden administration makes may rankle China, which has already threatened a “robust response” to any boycott and begun fomenting aggression against foreign media in preparation for their arrival next February. In assessing options for how to approach China’s oppressive regime via the Olympics, the ideal choice must send more than a meaningful message; it should attempt to effect actual change.