The world may finally be waking up to the horrors of the genocide being committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against the Uyghur people in China. The parallels between the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghurs and the Nazi Party’s treatment of Jews and other minorities are undeniable, from implementing mass sterilization of Uyghur women to interning Uyghurs in concentration camps and forcing them to perform slave labor in Chinese factories.
Thus far, the world’s response has eerily recalled the failed reaction to dictator Adolf Hitler’s atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite admirable efforts by the United States and other democracies to galvanize action in support of the Uyghurs, many countries and international organizations remain silent or feign ignorance on the ongoing Uyghur genocide out of concern regarding Chinese retribution.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given China the honor of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, just as it allowed Nazi Germany to host the Summer Olympics in 1936. But although the international community may not have understood the full extent of Hitler’s crimes and intentions in 1936, the CCP’s crimes against the Uyghurs and its escalating human rights abuses throughout mainland China—not to mention the destruction of civil liberties in Hong Kong—are well documented.
The international community must ensure the Olympic Games does not take place in the shadow of concentration camps once again. The International Olympic Committee must relocate—and if necessary, postpone—the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. If that does not work, then there should be a diplomatic boycott of the games. There is growing bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress to not let Beijing use this global event to glorify the CCP and normalize its atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities in China. Congress has introduced bills to support this endeavor. Recently, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi publicly called for a diplomatic boycott, saying world leaders would lose moral authority by attending the games in Beijing.
No country or international organization has made such a commitment to date. In fact, the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee stated it is not their role to solve “geopolitical problems.” But Beijing’s actions have already made the 2022 Games into a referendum on winking at a 21st century genocide. Olympic officials need to realize putting their heads in the sand will not make these “geopolitical problems” disappear. Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee , has gone as far as saying the IOC is incapable of resolving geopolitical issues with China. Hirshland’s position, seemingly shared inside the IOC, is that athletes have more power to affect global change when given the Olympic stage, citing the impact of athletes protesting Russia’s anti-LGBTQ legislation at the 2014 Sochi Games.
This position is disconnected from both the reality of the CCP’s infrastructure for suppression and the IOC’s global stature. The CCP will carefully curate the images from the Olympics that reach the outside world, filtering out any acts of protest or unflattering coverage that may tarnish China’s image in its time of glory on the world stage. The IOC’s statement places the impetus on athletes to counter Beijing’s massive apparatus for autocracy, a near impossible ask when one considers how skilled the CCP has become at perpetuating human rights abuses while the world watches. As an entity with observer status at the United Nations, the IOC is better suited than any group to make a dent in China’s international standing. By claiming otherwise, the IOC is ignoring its history of banning athlete activism to assuage autocratic nations that participated in the games throughout the past century. Throughout its history, the IOC has wielded its political influence under the guise of apoliticism in matters both dire and trivial. In the face of an ongoing genocide, the IOC is using this guise to shirk the global responsibility that comes with its stature and is empowering the CCP to continue perpetrating human rights abuses throughout China.
The three values of Olympism are excellence, friendship, and respect. The CCP’s mendacity and ruthless disregard for human life make it entirely unsuitable as a host for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. By allowing China to host the most prestigious international sporting event, the International Olympic Committee is handing the CCP a propaganda coup and an opportunity to deflect attention from the true character of the regime. This not only whitewashes genocide but also sullies the hard work of the athletes who have devoted their lives to achieving the excellence represented by the Olympian spirit.
There is no question the 1936 Summer Olympics was one of the most potent weapons in the Nazi Party’s propaganda arsenal. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels identified the Olympics as the perfect propaganda opportunity: an opportunity to show the world a carefully curated image of the Third Reich that would attract admirers and crowd out criticism of Nazi tyranny.
The CCP has made the same calculation. In the lead up to 2022, the propaganda machine is already churning out false eyewitness testimonies about Uyghurs’ quality of life, issuing rebukes to athletes and countries considering boycotting the games, and has even released a musical about how harmoniously Uyghurs live alongside ethnic Chinese people in Xinjiang. Beijing knows athletes and their corporate sponsors fear retaliation unless they go along with China’s whitewashed human rights atrocities.
As my colleagues and I on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have experienced first hand, Beijing is willing, if not eager, to punish public officials who refuse to buy into their false narrative. Because athletes are being forced to compete in China, the CCP has the power to go much further than simply sanctioning individuals who protest their genocide.
If the IOC will not act, then the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will bear responsibility for forcing their athletes to compete and accept medals in the shadows of concentration camps and genocide. Beijing uses its host status as validation and a badge of global leadership, treating the games as a seal of international approval. Athletes are being set up as pawns in Beijing’s global ambition, whether they wish for that or not. By showing up in Beijing, athletes and their coaches will become tools for Chinese government propaganda.
Even the world’s most popular leagues, such as the Premier League and the NBA, are not safe from retribution if the CCP perceives their athletes as a threat to its image. Just ask former Arsenal player Mesut Özil, whose protest of Chinese internment of Uyghurs resulted in the CCP blacking out Arsenal games in China and censoring Özil on social media. In the United States, China was able to use access to its consumer base to leverage the NBA and its sponsors to dissuade athletes and coaches from speaking out against China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong. If athletes stage similar protests at the Olympic Games in Beijing, one can only imagine the lengths to which the CCP will go to quash the demonstrations and punish athletes who participate.
If the international community continues to accede to China’s whitewashed human rights abuses, the ruling party will be emboldened elsewhere. China already has pointed more than a thousand missiles at Taiwan, violated the “one country, two systems” settlement in Hong Kong, employed “gray zone” tactics in the South China Sea, and used military force to dispute its border with India. By giving China a prestigious platform to broadcast CCP propaganda around the world, the IOC will give cover to a country that is waging a wide-ranging campaign of aggression and coercion.
Individual countries, athletes, and corporate sponsors naturally have the option of boycotting the Olympics. And if the IOC refuses to do the right thing, this may ultimately be the only route available to those who do not wish to be complicit in China’s mass atrocities. But denying athletes the opportunity to compete while allowing China to continue to reap the rewards would completely bely the professed values of Olympism and send the worst kind of message to autocrats and would-be genocidaires everywhere.
Corporate sponsors of the 2022 Olympics should be first in line urging the IOC to avert a public relations disaster, staining their brands with moral abdications to genocide. Yet Olympic sponsors are silent. Some, including Nike and Coca-Cola, reportedly use Uyghur labor in their supply chain and have lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Through a mixture of coercion and financial incentives, China is manipulating these and other corporations to not only stay silent on its human rights abuses but to actively attempt to prevent democratic governments from holding the CCP accountable for its crimes.
It will take the full force of the international community to make China feel so isolated it has no choice but to change its behavior. Coca-Cola, Nike, and other Olympic sponsors are not immune to accountability for keeping Chinese forced labor camps in business. It is their responsibility, as much as any government, to use their power to take a stand against China’s genocide.
Although it may be too late to find a new host city for the 2022 Games as scheduled, Chinese oppression of its Uyghur population should be treated with the same seriousness as the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics to be postponed. The United States and other democracies should lead calls for the IOC to reschedule the games to a later date to select a suitable alternative location.
Business as usual is not an option. Concentration camps have been photographed; shaved heads and piles of human hair, horrifyingly reminiscent of scenes from Auschwitz, are available for all to see. There’s no getting around the choice facing the IOC: Relocate the 2022 Games or condone genocide.
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