As the Washington Post recently reported, human rights activists and others are advocating a boycott of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, because of the Chinese government’s many formidable atrocities, including the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in concentration camps, the brutal oppression in Hong Kong and much more more.
Calls for a boycott are justified. The current Chinese government is not just any dictatorship. It is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. And there is no other way to prevent the Olympics from becoming a propaganda showcase for this regime. Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao recently called for a boycott for precisely this reason. We should listen to him.
Most of what I’ve written about 2016 sports boycotts in this article relates to the Chinese case in spades (see also here for a more complete version):
People of goodwill have debated for decades whether liberal democracies should boycott the Olympic Games and other sporting events under the auspices of repressive governments. Apartheid in South Africa was the target of a longstanding sports boycott that denied it the right to participate in, let alone host, most international sporting events. Sixty-two nations, including the United States, boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The standard argument against boycotts is the traditional idea that international sporting events should be kept free of politics. The problem with this theory is that the Olympic Games and similar events are practically always used as propaganda tools by the host governments, as was the case with Nazi Germany in 1936, the USSR in 1980, and Vladimir Putin in 2014 [with the Winter Olympics held in Sochi]. Because of this, it is almost impossible to make them truly politically neutral. The only realistic option is to either allow repressive regimes to use the games to improve their public image, prevent them from hosting in the first place, or forestall their propaganda by boycotting the games’ PR benefits for them Host undermines.
[S]ome [host] Governments are committing serious human rights abuses while preparing for the Games themselves. For example, China has forcibly displaced around one million people in preparation for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Brazil displaced many thousands to build new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. While it is wrong to boycott “unrelated” human rights violations in protest, the international sports community should not tolerate abuses that are an integral part of the sporting event itself.
In preparation for the Beijing 2022 Games, I couldn’t find any numbers on the forced displacement. However, given its track record, it would be surprising if China did not participate in this practice this time around.
Some have suggested that instead of boycotting, Western athletes should hold protests against the Games themselves and take the opportunity to criticize Chinese oppression. But such protests are likely to be drowned out by media attention devoted to the sporting events themselves and coverage of the hosts’ opening ceremonies and other propaganda set pieces. In contrast, a boycott would draw the world’s attention to the Chinese government’s human rights abuses while reducing the public relations and economic benefits the regime could derive from the Games. If all or most of the liberal democracies boycott, TV ratings for the Games will drop and media and public attention will instead focus on the boycott itself – as happened during the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Even a widespread boycott cannot force the Chinese government to change its policy. But it will at least deny the regime a propaganda victory and impose a price on its behavior.
If boycotts are at a disadvantage in such cases, it is the disappointment of the athletes who lose the opportunity to attend what many consider to be the most prestigious event in their respective sport. However, this can possibly be prevented if boycott states simultaneously pressurize the International Olympic Committee to revoke China’s right to host the Games and move them to another location instead. I have long argued that the IOC and other similar international bodies should have a general policy of prohibiting admission by repressive regimes. Revoking China’s hosting rights would be a good start to eliminating the darker side of the Olympics.
As Teng Biao points out, such a policy would be in line with the IOC’s own tenets, as the Olympic Charter calls for principles to “promote a peaceful society that is concerned with upholding human dignity” and “social responsibility and respect for basic universal ethics”. “It is obviously inconsistent with these ideals to allow China (and other similar regimes) to host the Olympics.
If the IOC refuses to see common sense, there is also the option of organizing alternative winter games in a more liberal society. Many democracies have the necessary facilities. If all or most of the liberal democratic nations boycott and instead participate in the alternative games, the latter are likely to have a higher standard of proficiency in most winter sports than the official IOC event. European and North American nations have the lion’s share of top athletes in most winter sports.
Ultimately, no athletic achievement opportunity is valuable enough to warrant promoting the propaganda interests of a regime that has become one of the most brutal in the world. Ideally, the West and its allies should force the IOC to postpone the Games. If that doesn’t work, we should boycott.