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Beijing Must Face Olympic Consequences for Human Rights Abuses

Moving the Games offers a rare opportunity to weaken Chinese President Xi Jinping.

By , a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.
Workers walk by an Olympic billboard.
Workers walk by a billboard showing the mascots for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Oct. 27. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Moments after a Greek actress in ceremonial garb lit the ceremonial torch for this year’s 2022 Winter Games, a soon-to-be-detained protester called out a pressing question: “How can Beijing be allowed to host the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uyghurs?”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach had already offered his answer earlier that day. The Olympiad, he said, must be “respected as politically neutral ground.” That refrain has grown all-too familiar. Earlier this month, IOC Vice President John Coates insisted that although “the IOC does place a very high emphasis on human rights,” the organization has “no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do.”

Even so, the IOC has a responsibility to, per the Olympic Charter, promote a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” That’s a responsibility it has often failed to live up to in the past. But plowing ahead with Beijing 2022 in the name of political neutrality and despite Beijing’s ongoing crimes against humanity will be its most egregious violation yet. It will involve the IOC not only remaining silent about abuses but effectively endorsing them. It will violate not only the victims’ dignity but that of participating Olympic athletes and the numerous officials and volunteers needed to carry off a successful Olympiad, all of whom the IOC is more than happy to make complicit in galling offenses. The Games must not go on.

Moments after a Greek actress in ceremonial garb lit the ceremonial torch for this year’s 2022 Winter Games, a soon-to-be-detained protester called out a pressing question: “How can Beijing be allowed to host the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uyghurs?”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach had already offered his answer earlier that day. The Olympiad, he said, must be “respected as politically neutral ground.” That refrain has grown all-too familiar. Earlier this month, IOC Vice President John Coates insisted that although “the IOC does place a very high emphasis on human rights,” the organization has “no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do.”

Even so, the IOC has a responsibility to, per the Olympic Charter, promote a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” That’s a responsibility it has often failed to live up to in the past. But plowing ahead with Beijing 2022 in the name of political neutrality and despite Beijing’s ongoing crimes against humanity will be its most egregious violation yet. It will involve the IOC not only remaining silent about abuses but effectively endorsing them. It will violate not only the victims’ dignity but that of participating Olympic athletes and the numerous officials and volunteers needed to carry off a successful Olympiad, all of whom the IOC is more than happy to make complicit in galling offenses. The Games must not go on.

In China’s far west, the state is undertaking a slow-moving genocide that is no less horrid for its deliberate pace. Elsewhere, religious practitioners of various stripes, defense lawyers, activists, and dissidents are growing targets of persecution. The Chinese mainland plays host to an emerging panopticon in which authorities are always watching. Hong Kong has seen its freedoms erased and abuses growing. Taiwan fears it will be the target of a bloody annexation.

It is in this context that Beijing will host the 2022 Olympic Games, and it is why those Games must not go forward as planned.

This is also a unique opportunity to impose consequences on China’s leadership. Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to use the Games to shore up his own domestic legitimacy and impress on the wider world China’s power and supposed beneficence. He looks forward to February 2022, expecting the Olympics will be a great success the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under his leadership, will take credit for.

But there is still time to deprive Xi of that victory lap. The United States and its like-minded partners may normally have limited wherewithal to directly influence domestic power politics in China, but the Games’ scheduled events may provide a rare opportunity. The Beijing Olympics will serve as just one bookend during an eventful year in China. The other is the 20th Party Congress, normally held in the fall. Had Xi not successfully centralized leadership during the past nine years and removed constraints on his term beyond a 10-year time frame, the National People’s Congress would mark the beginning of a leadership transition in China. Ambitious and disaffected party elites may wish that was still the case.

With Xi plying uncharted waters, to target the Games would be to target him directly. Rather than reaping the rewards of a successful Olympics, Xi would be grappling with a significant public failure. CCP elites would see an embarrassment for the party and China, domestically and internationally, and Xi might find himself stamping out internal criticism instead of basking in the Olympics’ successful afterglow.

Meanwhile, a campaign to cancel or move the Olympics will require a public relations effort that will bring widespread attention to China’s crimes. A diminution in Chinese international influence, coming at a time when Xi seems scared to leave the country, would unlikely be limited to sports. It could potentially empower smaller countries to stand up to Chinese bullying, knowing others will stand by them.

To hold China accountable for its worst misdeeds, the United States and like-minded partners should push to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics. This is no easy task, but it is entirely within the International Olympic Committee’s contractual rights to terminate its agreement with Beijing.

Time, however, is running short. If there is to be any hope of the IOC doing so, a concerted pressure campaign will be necessary. The Biden administration, which has promised to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy, should rally other Winter Olympic heavyweights to demand a change in venue. In addition to the United States, the top 20 all-time Winter Olympic medal winners include 10 U.S. allies and three non-allied liberal democracies.

If one includes medals won by East and West Germany, those 14 countries account for 75 percent of all Winter Olympic medals ever awarded. The pressure on the IOC would be substantial if even half of these nations publicly demanded the IOC move the Games and postpone them as necessary, threatening to otherwise boycott or hold parallel Freedom Games. Those 14 countries have the power to render Beijing 2022’s competitive results meaningless. They should use it.

Despite China’s many sins—foremost among them the ongoing genocide—Olympic teams are still expected to descend on Beijing next February. They will play big parts in a grand propaganda spectacle, one that may feature smiling (persecuted) minorities, a heroic retelling of China’s response to the novel coronavirus, and a message that China’s power is now an immutable feature of the international system.

To save the Olympics, the Games must be moved. Xi has taken the potentially fateful step of providing the international community with the leverage it needs to hold him and his fellow leaders accountable for their transgressions. Better make the most of it.

Michael Mazza is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the Global Taiwan Institute, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is the author of the recent American Enterprise Institute report, “Move the Games: What to Do About the 2022 Beijing Olympics.”

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