Beijing’s Olympics Paved the Way for Xinjiang’s Camps

The 2008 games were supposed to help liberalize China. Instead the party learned it could get away with anything.

A family visits the National Stadium, also known as the “Bird's Nest,” constructed for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
A family visits the National Stadium, also known as the “Bird's Nest,” constructed for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Year of the Pig begins, in Beijing and the mountainous Yanqing district just 50 miles from the capital, construction is well underway for the 2022 Winter Olympics, now just three years away. Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, another form of construction is going on. Beijing’s internment camps for Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to hold around a million inmates. As China’s oppression of minorities and civil society grows, so should questions about whether the Olympics should be hosted by Beijing at all—especially as Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics marked a turning point in renewed oppression.

Historically, the Olympics have always turned a blind eye to atrocity, most infamously with the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933, and the Nuremberg race laws, which set the legal framework for anti-Semitism, were passed a year before the Olympics. Germany’s growing terror was so well known that there were strong calls for the United States and other nations to boycott the games. Despite this, in the end, a record number of nations—including the United States­—attended.

The enthusiasm for China to host in 2008 was, if anything, even stronger, despite a well-documented history of repression. In case the world needed a reminder, in March 2008, five months before the games, widespread protests broke out across Tibet and were met with a fierce, militaristic response and de facto martial law across the entire region.

“Those protests caught the Chinese government by surprise,” said Kai Müller, the executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet’s Germany office. “The immediate reaction was a clampdown, with a lot of victims and a lot of people in detention.”

The Tibet protests made headlines globally and proved embarrassing for the Chinese authorities. They were followed soon after by protests around the world against the oppression of Tibetan, Uighur, and minority human rights, most notably around the global relay of the Olympic Torch. Perhaps in another sign of things to come, China mobilized students to hold pro-China counter-protests at these events. Portrayed as spontaneous at the time, these protests were recently revealed to have been organized directly from Beijing.

The Tibet protests shed light on something that China wanted ignored—the limited progress on human rights, particularly for minorities, in the country. There were numerous calls for boycotts, from the Uighur and Tibetan exile communities, the nonprofit Reporters with Borders, and even some sports journalists. Chinese dissidents also called for more recognition of China’s failure to address human rights, with dozens, including future Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, signing an open letter to the government.

The Olympics was a chance for the world to put pressure on China for its abysmal human rights record, or at least the situation in Tibet. Instead, outside of some minor, token actions, such as a few heads of state missing the opening ceremony, the world turned a blind eye to the obvious hard-handed state response to Tibet’s unrest, and China got its massive propaganda moment.

“I thought there would be a lot more effort to boycott 2008, but it sort of fizzled in the end,” said Mark Dyreson, a sports historian at Pennsylvania State University.

In truth, Olympic boycotts have a checkered history. The most widely remembered ones are the Cold War boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles games—the first driven by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the second a retaliatory move by the Soviet bloc. But other games provide a better model for a human rights-driven boycott. In 1976, more than 20 African countries withdrew their teams from the Montreal Games in protest against New Zealand sending its rugby team to play in apartheid South Africa.

“In the totality of Olympic history since 1896, there’s just been this one small period where boycotts took place and had a large impact on the games,” Dyreson said.

But that boycott was just one part of much wider sporting, cultural, and commercial boycotts against the apartheid state—a movement that would take decades to fully pay off. Opponents argue that an Olympic boycott is counterproductive. For them, a good model is the 1988 Seoul Games, which some believe played a role in the movement the year before that led to South Korea’s first democratic elections.

Susan Brownell, an Olympic historian who worked with the Beijing city government ahead of the 2008 games, was a prominent advocate of this viewpoint, arguing at the time that the Olympics will speed up “formation of a civil society in urban China by perhaps as much as five to 10 years,” a similar argument to those who argued that China’s reform and embrace of liberal trade policies would also lead to inevitable democratization.

Today, that argument seems laughable. Letting Beijing host the games did not open up space for civil society, media, or minority rights. Instead, today, things are much worse. The Beijing games turned out to be a watershed moment for Tibetans and Uighurs, but in the wrong way. They sent a clear signal—China had a free pass to oppress its minorities.

Tibet has been on lockdown ever since, and the next year, when violence broke out in Urumqi, the government responded to the Uighur protesters with even more force—a campaign of oppression barely noticed by the rest of the world. This has led to, now, the massive concentration camps in Xinjiang and a similar broad-scale police system of surveillance in Tibet, where even tiny protests calling for language education can result in multiyear prison sentences. Tibet remains almost entirely closed to journalists today.

“It is problematic that the Chinese government apparently is about to succeed in normalizing their policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, or elsewhere in [the country],” Müller said. “That will have consequences not only for Tibet, but also for this model of society that the Chinese government is proposing to the world, an authoritarian one without real human rights or rule of law.”

The growth in oppression in Xinjiang has been accompanied by a rise in Islamophobia and hate speech across the country. There are reports that even non-Turkic Muslim minorities, such as the Hui, are beginning to see restrictions on religious freedom or cultural expression.

Securitization is also connected to the Olympics. Just four days before the 2008 games’ opening ceremony, a terrorist attack in Kashgar, Xinjiang, resulted in the deaths of 16 policeman. Harsher security measures throughout the country in the run-up to 2008 pushed greater radicalization, especially in border areas such as Xinjiang. In turn, that pushed the virtual and physical clampdown in the region. Security paranoia all over China is ramping up—and will get worse as 2022 approaches. The fear of a repeat of either the 2008 Tibet or 2009 Urumqi protests, or more terrorist attacks, means the scope of the security state will likely only grow between now and 2022.

Unless U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio—the Florida Republican who has become an unlikely champion of the Uighurs—gains traction for his call to have the International Olympic Committee reassess its awarding of the games to Beijing, there’s little sign that calls for a boycott will emerge between now and 2022. If the Xinjiang camps are still in operation by that point, it likely means that things have gotten much, much worse in China. While a boycott or threats of one alone probably won’t change China much, it would allow the world to regain some moral authority and show a pathway to putting pressure on the government for human rights abuses.

A 2008 boycott might not have made a difference—or it might have provided some support for the more moderate approach pushed by some within the Chinese government. But it’s hard to imagine that a successful boycott could have possibly made the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang any worse.

Nithin Coca is an Asia-focused freelance journalist covering environment, human rights, and politics issues across the region.

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