Written by Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19.
In early 1980, Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov began advocating for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over human rights concerns. In the end, 65 countries joined a full boycott. Sakharov, today, is perhaps best remembered for the eponymous Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded every year since 1988 by the European Parliament in recognition of courageous human rights defenders. Now, in a sad historical arc, Sakharov Prize winner and Uyghur rights defender Ilham Tohti is serving an arbitrary life sentence in China as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics.
China’s human rights record is abominable. It must not be rewarded with the global platform afforded by the Olympics to whitewash its record and spread its influence.
The momentum for diplomatic boycotts over human rights abuses is gaining welcome traction. So far, Australia, Canada, Lithuania, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Olympics. More should follow.
Short of a full boycott there’s a lot that the international community can also do to deny China the opportunity to twist the narrative and escape accountability for its egregious rights abuses.
No rights, no games
China is responsible for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in Xinjiang. This includes the mass forced incarceration of some one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities, forced labour, torture, sterilisation, and systematic efforts to eradicate culture. Tested in Xinjiang and employed around the country, China is also perfecting a sophisticated model of techno-authoritarianism which is increasingly going global.
Tibetans are also subjected to apartheid-like conditions and denied fundamental rights to language, culture, and religion, including new evidence of a vast network of forced residential schools affecting upwards of 900,000 Tibetan children. Ethnic Mongolians’ language and culture is also being systematically erased.
No country committing crimes against humanity and acts of genocide should be permitted to host a global event. This should be a bare minimum international standard, and yet China’s rights-abusing record doesn’t end here.
China imposes among the most restrictive internet controls in the world, enforcing totalitarian control over expression and access to information online, and the right to protest is non-existent. These conditions will continue through the Games.
It has waged a full frontal assault on civil and political rights in Hong Kong, disregarded international agreements, and engaged in hostage diplomacy that has seen the lengthy and arbitrary imprisonment of foreign nationals.
Enforced disappearances are widespread and systematic under abusive provisions within the Criminal Procedure Law and the National Supervision Law, along with various extrajudicial custodial mechanisms. Torture is widely reported and forced confessions are common. This includes high profile disappearances such as former Interpol president Meng Hongwei and actress Fan Bingbing, but these are also just the tip of the iceberg for the tens of thousands of victims of such systems of abuse.
The disappearance of Olympian Peng Shuai following her accusation of a senior party official of sexual assault has redoubled international outcry of China’s rights abuses. Not only has she disappeared, but Chinese censors have been busily rewriting the facts. But after a series of clearly scripted and coerced appearances from Peng Shuai, in a craven move that privileges profit over rights, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has made itself complicit in propagandising for China.
The IOC’s cowardice here is an indication that it will not be an ally for protecting rights at the upcoming Games, despite its stated goal of developing a human rights strategic framework. Its Charter enjoins it to ‘ensure the fullest coverage by different media.’
In a December 2021 interview IOC President Thomas Bach hypocritically noted, “we have to live up to our responsibilities related to the Games…no discrimination, freedom of the press, open internet, freedom of expression for the athletes.” While foreign athletes may be permitted unrestricted internet access in select Olympics venues, human rights are not about partial commitments.
We shouldn’t be fooled.
Even before countries began announcing diplomatic boycotts, censors were busy scrubbing the words ‘Olympic boycott’ from Chinese social media.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), in November 2021, stated that over the last year foreign press has been continuously stymied in its coverage of Olympics preparations. The FCCC lamented that there is still ‘tremendous uncertainty over how and if foreign correspondents will be able to cover the Games.’ The statement also highlighted the censorship and surveillance of foreign correspondents. This comes amid heightened intimidation and harassment of international media and the detention of nearly 130 Chinese journalists across the country.
The freedom of expression and access to information will remain curtailed throughout the Games, as China will seek to manipulate the narrative in its favour. Beijing must not be allowed to whitewash its record and benefit from the international spotlight it will enjoy as an Olympics host.
Diplomatic boycotts are welcome and more countries should follow suit but short of a full boycott there are other measures the international community can pursue.
The IOC has proven it cannot be relied on as an ally for a rights-respecting Olympics. How it has handled Peng Shuai’s disappearance is no less than collusion and puts her at greater risk. Aside from its moral failing, it should be seen as a breach of the IOC Code of Ethics. As such, the IOC President and senior leadership should be immediately referred to the IOC Ethics Commission and sanctioned accordingly.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has taken the opposite approach from the IOC, announcing on 3 December that it was suspending all tournaments in China and Hong Kong in protest of Peng Shuai’s treatment and China’s manipulation of the facts. The WTA offers a needed model that other sporting associations could follow, not only in declaring solidarity with Peng Shuai and cancelling events but in standing against China’s efforts to propagandise, especially at such events.
National Olympic Committees may not feel comfortable endorsing a full boycott but there are also other ways that they can deny China a platform to distract from its rights abuses. They should consider skipping the opening and closing ceremonies. Athletes could compete under the Olympics flag rather than their own country flags to emphasise national denouncement of China’s ongoing rights abuses.
Imagine if an athlete flew the Uyghur or Tibetan flags at any point during the Games.
Current and former Olympians should use their platforms to denounce China’s atrocities such as former Olympic figure skater Evan Bates, who recently noted ‘on behalf of all the athletes, I can say human rights violations are abysmal, and we all believe that it tears the fabric of humanity.’
Of course, taking a stand in China incurs real risks of detention, even for foreign nationals. Truthfully, the significant risk of arbitrary detention of foreign nationals should also be a disqualifying mark for any would-be global host.
National Olympic Committees should demonstrate their support for human rights by publicly declaring their full defence of their athletes’ rights to free expression, no matter the medium.
Corporate sponsors of the Olympics also need to step up, and not be afraid to express their concerns with China’s record, especially as China appears poised to escalate pressure on the business community to remain silent.
Now is the time to either withdraw sponsorship or use their leverage to raise human rights abuses. This is the least they could do under their responsibilities within the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Olympics sponsors include Airbnb, Intel, Panasonic, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and others. They should be guided to address the adverse impact of their business operations, such as the risk of legitimising gross human rights abuses by not using their sponsorship to speak out.
Shareholders in corporate sponsors should also call on them to take immediate steps to address these concerns in public.
There will be tremendous pressure on foreign correspondents. As noted by the FCCC, this has already begun. There will be pressure to present things in a certain light or to not cover sensitive issues.
China will complain that reporting on human rights politicises the Games, but this is dead wrong. Rather, not to report on the host country, to stay silent in the face of gross human rights abuses, to provide a platform only for the narrative permitted by Beijing allows China to instrumentalise the Games for political purposes.
This is especially true for media houses who have contributed to IOC income by purchasing broadcast rights, which make up nearly 75 percent of the IOC’s income, and are large ratings and revenue boost for the broadcasters also. The American network NBCUniversal alone is responsible for the majority of IOC revenue generated in this way, and in particular should not allow China to manipulate international media coverage.
Just as China will attempt to use the Olympics platform to obscure its rights abuses, the international press should focus the spotlight of the Olympics on bringing to light the abuses China seeks to hide. Countering disinformation from China will also require an all-hands approach to fact-checking and ensuring counter-narratives are elevated wherever China attempts to spin the record.
In this, social media platforms also have a role. Although Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms are blocked in China, China has waged influence operations of propaganda and intimidation around the world, especially relating to Xinjiang. At the start of December 2021 alone, Twitter removed over 2,000 accounts linked to disinformation from China. High profile China Party-State media accounts have likewise been churning out content to manipulate the narrative on international boycotts. Such influence operations are likely to escalate leading up to the Games.
For example, in November, China agreed to pay American consulting firm Vippi Media $300,000 to recruit social media influencers on Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, and others to pursue influence operations surrounding the Olympics.
Social media platforms should enhance efforts to monitor and flag Chinese State-backed influence operations, and direct users to authoritative third-party sources. Chinese Party-State media content, in particular, should be downranked in promotion algorithms. At the same time, platforms should redouble their efforts to prevent coordinated inauthentic behaviour meant to promote or artificially upgrade disinformation content before and during the Olympics. While social media platforms have a distinct role in preventing China from propagandising during the Olympics, any such policies must be grounded in human rights, transparent, and applied consistently.
In the end, while the movement to boycott the Olympics should be supported, it looks like the Games will proceed. The international community should embrace every opportunity to use the Olympics to defend human rights, because China will certainly be trying to use the Games to spin its record.
For more information
Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager, [email protected].