Andréa Worden, April 21, 2021
There are many reasons why rights-respecting governments should stay far away from Xi Jinping’s Winter Olympics. To name just a few: the Uyghur genocide, the crushing of political and civil freedoms in Hong Kong, the deepening assault on Tibetan culture and religion, the forced erasure of Mongolian and other ethnic minority identities, “hostage diplomacy,” the unremitting attacks on human rights lawyers, rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of religion ––the list goes on. If diplomats and government officials attend Xi Jinping’s Olympics, they will, simply by virtue of their presence, bestow legitimacy on a high-tech totalitarian regime that is currently engaged in a scorched-earth strategy to neutralize anyone or anything that might be perceived by the tetchy Chinese Communist Party leadership as posing a threat to its one-party rule. Attendance at Xi’s Games would also be a searing affront to the victims of the CCP’s human rights abuses, and their families. Government representatives and possible non-official envoys should stay home.
Moreover, governments ––not to mention corporate sponsors and other businesses–– that participate in Xi’s Olympics will be complicit in bolstering a genocidal regime that is actively promoting and exporting globally its repressive human rights agenda and views. In short, Xi’s Games will amount to a global referendum on the CCP’s model of authoritarian capitalism and “rights free” state-led development, in which the only right that matters is a state’s right to development ––“the key to solving all problems,” according to the CCP playbook. Thus, the US and its allies and partners should declare a joint diplomatic boycott of the Games and send a clear message in opposition–– both to Beijing’s human rights policies and practices and to Xi’s “community of shared future (aka ‘common destiny’) for humankind” (“人类命运共同体”), which is poised to become one of the key narratives of the Games. Indeed, when China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, introduced the Beijing 2022 Games to the General Assembly in December 2019, he said: “The Olympic Games is not only an arena for athletes, but also a bridge of friendship for people of all countries. . . . As we share the same world and a common future, China will always be a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, a defender of international order and will work towards building a community of shared future for mankind.”
Furthermore, if diplomats and government officials from the democracies attend the Games, they will become part of Xi’s Olympic propaganda spectacle –– a most excellent “China story” –– in which the CCP will hold uncontestable discourse power. Attendance will be treated as endorsement; Twitter-style disclaimers would be useless. The CCP has the home court advantage, which it is certain to exploit to the fullest to promote its policies, views, and successes. Against the backdrop of the Lunar New Year, which coincides with the Beijing 2022 Games, CCP propagandists will dazzle the global audience with a spun version of Chinese culture and tradition for Xi Jinping’s new era, further driving home the claim that “Chinese (Xi-ist) wisdom” and a “Chinese solution” are the way forward to a happy, prosperous, pandemic-free world. Displays of nationalism will play a big role; and although true for all Olympic hosts–– a particularly triumphalist nationalism on steroids should be expected during Beijing 2022. The opening ceremony will inevitably include smiling Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols and others, skating and dancing together in perfect “ethnic unity,” grateful to be part of the glorious Chinese cultural tradition, and indebted to Xi and the CCP for their wise development policies and promotion of “ethnic fusion.” Two billion people worldwide tuned in for the (generally more popular) summer Olympics held in Beijing in 2008; even if just half that number watch in February 2022, that’s a lot of people. And the opening and closing ceremonies will be available for endless replay on the “always on” Olympic Channel.
Given the increasing intensity of the CCP’s propaganda and disinformation campaign about the Uyghurs and Xinjiang, it’s easy to imagine a flood of visual stories and video clips depicting the “real Xinjiang,” free from Western “bias,” and images depicting Xinjiang and Tibet as winter sports paradises. The CCP’s crackdown on Western and other independent journalists in China raises the question of who, if anyone–– on the ground in February 2022––will be able to safely report a story that diverges from CCP-approved story lines?
It doesn’t matter how often or how loudly International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, Xi Jinping, and their proxies proclaim that sports and politics don’t mix, and that the Games should not be “politicized” and for the IOC, that “political neutrality” is a key principle of the IOC and the Games, the modern Olympic Games have always been political, and wishing that weren’t so doesn’t change the reality that they are, in fact, deeply political. As political scientist and Olympics expert Jules Boykoff aptly puts it: “To say the Olympics transcend politics is to conjure fantasy” (Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (Verso, 2016, p.2).) Beijing 2022 will be Xi Jinping’s Games just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics were Hitler’s. They will be an extravagant celebration of the leader, the Party, Party-spun history and the policies that led to the astonishing things the world will see next February, including, for example, the first ever “smart high-speed railway” featuring a driverless bullet train connecting the two co-host cities––Beijing and Zhangjiakou–– and the People’s Bank of China’s digital currency (e-CNY), which should be ready for use not just by Chinese citizens but also for foreign athletes and visitors during the Winter Games.
To underscore just how important the Games are, politically, to Xi and the regime––once calls for a possible boycott began to gather steam around the one-year-to-go mark, PRC’s Global Times editor Hu Xijin, whom the New York Times has described as “possibly the most infamous Communist Party propagandist,” tweeted that China would “seriously sanction” any country that follows a call to boycott Beijing 2022. The Global Times promptly followed with an editorial warning of China’s willingness to “retaliate fiercely” against any country that might boycott the Games. Then, in early April, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ notorious “wolf warrior” spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, warned of a “robust response” if the US should proceed with a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Games.
In February, shortly after Hu Xijin and the Global Times delivered their threats of retaliation, the MFA and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Games took a different approach and invited foreign diplomats and envoys in Beijing to visit the “competition zone” of the co-host city of Zhangjiakou (张家口), Hebei province. The MFA reported that the mid-February trip included envoys from more than 30 countries, including, among others, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Norway, Austria, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. The scripted “see-for-yourself and listen-to-our-good China story” tour, along with earlier reports from Xinhua and Xinhua’s doppelganger, IOC Media, provide a preview of some of what can be expected by way of propaganda and messaging at the 2022 Games themselves.
First, there is the consistent trumpeting of the historic “first” of Beijing being the only city ever to host both a summer and winter Olympics; and the emphasis on Xi’s wisdom and guidance that will make these Games, in Xi’s own words, a “remarkable, extraordinary, and excellent event”; next, the Games are being touted as green, sustainable, and carbon neutral and helping to further the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. During the Games, the audience will no doubt be reminded repeatedly that because Xi vanquished Covid in China the world (finally) is able to come together, in “solidarity,” in for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games (alas, poor Tokyo, no such luck). Xi will be praised for setting a visionary personal goal to get 300 million people in China engaged in winter sports by February 2022, a number that is well on its way to being reached, according to Thomas Bach (an energetic and reliable cheerleader for Xi and the CCP, and not just in sport-related matters). There will undoubtedly be more “positive energy” messaging and plaudits, for example, stories of impoverished mountain villages near the Olympic venues transformed into bustling ski towns, thanks to Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation efforts.
During the mid-February tour, Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the group of foreigners at Zhangjiakou and highlighted that Xi Jinping was “personally providing guidance” for Beijing 2022; moreover, Wang said, that IOC “President Thomas Bach express[ed] confidence and support on many occasions.” Paraphrasing Wang Yi, the MFA reported that he said, “to make the Beijing Winter Olympics a success is to live up to the confidence of the people of all countries in overcoming the pandemic.” Wang said that he believed “the Beijing Winter Olympic Games will be a bridge that transcends ideologies, communicates different civilizations and connects the hearts of mankind, leading to a better future of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
The MFA further reported that (unnamed) envoys “believe[d that] the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games will become a milestone of humanity’s victory over the pandemic.”
The growing calls for the Games to be moved out of China notwithstanding, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the IOC would relocate the Games. The too-close-for-comfort relationships between Xi Jinping and Thomas Bach, the CCP and the IOC, and the Xinhua News Agency and IOC Media, as well as the money and reputation at stake, and the fact that these are Xi’s Games, means that they will proceed according to plan (and will be a great success), regardless of protests, boycotts, or any fallout from the uncertainty surrounding the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games.
While a full boycott of the Games is unquestionably justified, depriving athletes of their opportunity and right to compete in the Olympics unfairly penalizes them for the egregious conduct of the host country, and for the craven behavior of the essentially unaccountable IOC. The fact that only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, remained in the running at the end of the bidding contest for the 2022 Winter Olympics tells us all we need to know about the deeply flawed incentive structure of the Olympics and the “Olympic values” of the IOC. Fundamental reform of the IOC is necessary if the Olympic Games are to actually achieve the goal of Olympism, which is “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” This, by definition, cannot happen in a totalitarian police state. To be sure, many more (hundreds of millions?!) people engaging in winter sports and activities in China is a good thing, but also a sportswashing distraction.
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be used by Xi Jinping and the CCP to enhance their power and legitimacy, bolster CCP-centered nationalism, and promote the Belt and Road Initiative and “community of shared future for humankind,” which are framed by the CCP as not only aligning with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but also the Olympic Movement, which Xi and the CCP envision China playing an important role in leading as a matter of “global governance.” No boycott or other form of Olympic protest will change the CCP regime’s behavior. Instead, a diplomatic boycott, together with our allies and partners, is about upholding our shared values and principles, our shared embrace of human rights and a shared moral duty not to be complicit in genocide and other horrific human rights abuses. It is incumbent upon the like-minded democracies to clearly communicate, through actions and words, that we condemn the CCP regime’s human rights atrocities and its contempt for the rules-based international order, and that we refuse to participate in the celebration and glorification of Xi Jinping and his New Era.
Andréa Worden, J.D., M.A., is an avid winter sports fan and former professional ski instructor. She is also a human rights advocate, translator and writer, whose work focuses primarily on the PRC party-state’s interactions with the UN human rights mechanisms. She’ll return to Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts & Sciences as a visiting lecturer in the East Asia Studies program this fall (2021). Follow her on Twitter @tingdc