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ESPN: In D.C., calls to boycott China Olympics amid reports of Uyghur genocide fall flat

The below article was published by ESPN, photo credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

The verdict of the United States government is clear, damning and widely endorsed by human-rights groups: China, host nation for the 2022 Winter Olympics, is guilty of an ongoing genocide. However, with the Games set to open in Beijing in six months, widespread calls for a postponement, relocation or athlete boycott have fallen flat in Washington.

Instead, momentum is gathering for a diplomatic boycott in which government officials would not attend the Games, a result that would disappoint the bipartisan group of lawmakers and some 180 human-rights groups that want stronger action for what they call China’s crimes against humanity.

They also criticize corporate sponsors of the Olympics for putting their business interests ahead of widely accepted reports of atrocities.

“This is not a policy disagreement. This is not a trade dispute. This is not politics. This is not even a question about a particular system of government,” Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., said during a recent hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which tracks human rights abuses in China. “This is about a genocide.”

China is holding more than a million Uyghur Muslims in camps in its western Xinjiang region, where news organizations and human rights monitors have said the detainees are subject to sexual assault, forced labor and sterilization. China denies the accusations as fabricated.

Despite the urgent situation, the International Olympic Committee and a slew of corporate sponsors have joined the United States and other nations that accuse China of genocide in a general reluctance to act. They worry that a boycott or postponement could damage the Olympic movement and punish athletes, while doing nothing to change China’s behavior.

There is also open concern about provoking retaliation from China, which is not only crucial to the global supply chain of goods but also has a history of punishing critics by cutting off access to its vast and fast-growing consumer market.

The notion of a diplomatic boycott has been embraced by both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a key organizer of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“For heads of state to go to China in wake of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as it commits genocide?” Pelosi said during a May hearing.

Legislation passed by the Senate in June would prohibit government funds from being used to send diplomats to represent the country at the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on Feb. 4, 2022.

The Biden administration has not publicly endorsed the idea, although Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has told lawmakers he is working with allies to develop a “shared approach” to addressing concerns about the Games. The British Parliament in July passed a nonbinding resolution in support of a diplomatic boycott, but it remains unclear what nations would take part in such a protest.

U.S. policy makers worry that if a diplomatic boycott does not attract widespread participation by other countries, the move could end up backfiring and strengthening China while leaving the U.S. isolated on the issue.

“If you can’t win the fight, it may not be a fight you want to start,” a senior Democratic congressional aide told ESPN.

Such deference frustrates many activists who believe China should be aggressively confronted about its human rights record, despite its massive influence over business interests.

Along with the United States, Canada, Great Britain and the Netherlands have deemed the situation in Xinjiang a genocide. An independent report of more than 30 international law experts in March said there is “clear and convincing” evidence that China has violated every provision of the United Nations Genocide Convention, from reports of biometric data collection and mass surveillance to forced sterilization and torture.

“China’s policies and practices targeting Uyghurs in the region must be viewed in their totality, which amounts to an intent to destroy the Uyghurs as a group, in whole or in substantial part, as such,” their report says.

China also has been criticized over what many see as its trampling of democratic rights in Hong Kong, and its longstanding repression of its citizens in Tibet. More recently, there has been concern about what is widely viewed as China’s lack of transparency regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, however, rhetoric criticizing China’s behavior has been stronger than any actions being taken to change it. The International Olympic Committee, the Switzerland-based association that controls the Games, has said repeatedly that it does not involve itself in the domestic affairs of host countries. The IOC has clung to the position even when countries hosting the Games are viewed by the world community as totalitarian or, like China, accused of genocide.

The IOC told ESPN in an email that it believes it can “serve as a platform for cooperation and constructive engagement” and that its mandate is to “remain neutral on all global political issues.” Plus, the IOC added, moving the Games would be “in practice impossible.”

“The contracts, which are signed at the time of the allocation of the Games — which is about seven years before — legally bind all parties to deliver on their obligations and deliverables,” the IOC concluded.

The notion that the Games should hover above politics is central to the Olympic ideal espoused by the organization’s leaders, who say boycotts penalize only athletes while having no effect on how countries behave.

“A boycott of the Olympic Games has never achieved anything,” IOC president Thomas Bach told reporters in March.

Bach won a gold medal in fencing for West Germany in 1976, but he was forced to sit out the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the U.S.-led boycott that followed the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets led a retaliatory boycott of the Games in Los Angeles. As Bach sees it, the net effect of the boycotts was to penalize a generation of Olympic athletes even as the Soviets remained in Afghanistan until 1989.

But some pushing for a boycott say the upcoming Winter Games are in a different category. Rather than comparing them to 1980, they look back further, to when the Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime hosted the Olympics in 1936.

The Berlin Games may be best remembered for the historic performance of American track star Jesse Owens, a Black man whose three gold medals shattered the myth of Aryan superiority. But U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, noted that the Games also allowed Hitler to present a relatively benign face to the world.

“There is a parallel,” said Merkley, chairman of the Congressional-Executive commission. “Hitler used the Olympics to put a real shine on his country at the same time he was already engaged in horrific acts against his own citizens, and worse was to come. But in this situation, it’s worse than Berlin in 1936 because the genocide is already underway.”

The upcoming Games would once again offer a global showcase to a country that was home to the 2008 Summer Olympics; Beijing is the first city to be awarded both a summer and winter Olympics. In the past, China has used its economic might — it’s projected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy within a decade — to punish countries and corporations that criticize its human-rights practices.

Norway saw its salmon exports to China plummet after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Liu died in 2017 less than a month after being released from a Chinese prison on medical parole. The NBA had its games yanked off state television in China after former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in 2019 tweeted in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

“China is only as powerful as much as we allow them to be,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for the Uyghurs, an activist group that has called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. “We keep feeding this monster. We keep doing business. We keep treating this government like a legitimate government while they are acting like gangsters.”

Nike and H&M are among the brands that faced online calls for a boycott in China from celebrities and Communist Party loyalists after they spoke out about allegations of forced labor being used to produce cotton in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied such accusations, calling reported re-education camps in Xinjiang vocational training centers aimed at stamping out poverty and religious extremism.

Other brands, including some Olympic sponsors, have remained mum.

During a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, members of Congress pressed representatives from five top corporate sponsors of the Olympics — Intel, Airbnb, the Coca-Cola Co., Proctor & Gamble and Visa — about the situation in China.

Lawmakers repeatedly asked representatives about their companies’ human rights commitments, which they proudly shared. But when the question turned to whether they could use their leverage as Olympic sponsors to pressure the IOC to move the Olympics from China, the conversation slowed.

“We’re all waiting with bated breath for all of you to say, ‘Move the Olympics. The Beijing genocide Olympics needs to be moved.’ Can’t you say that?” Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, asked Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s vice president for human rights.

“We don’t make a decision on the host — on the host location, but we work on the human rights aspect and there has been progress in the space,” Lalli said, explaining that sponsorship money follows athletes, not host countries.

“I think there’s concern among corporate America that if you do, they will deny you access,” Smith said, before surrendering the floor. “That’s how they retaliate. That’s how they are able to get away, literally, with murder.”

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