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Should America Boycott China’s 2022 Olympics?

Should America Boycott China’s 2022 Olympics?

Friday, 25 September, 2020 - 06:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

The Olympics are nominally apolitical, but only the willingly credulous believe that. The history of the Olympic Games is shot through with the geopolitics of the last century.

In 1936, the Berlin Olympics allowed a dictatorial, anti-Semitic regime to bask in the attention of the world. Twelve years later, Germany and Japan were excluded from the London Olympics for their role in starting World War II. The awarding of summer Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 and Munich in 1972 symbolized the Cold War rehabilitation of Germany and Japan as members of the democratic West. In 1980, the US boycotted Olympics held by the Soviet Union, after the invasion of Afghanistan conclusively killed off the superpower detente of the 1970s.

And when China hosted the summer games in 2008, it treated the occasion as the coming-out party of an aspiring global player.

Beijing is now gearing up for another turn as host, this time of the Winter Olympics in 2022. Will the democratic world someday regret going along with the spectacle put on by the Chinese Communist Party, even as it engages in mass atrocities against its Uighur population in the western province of Xinjiang? Some, including US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, think the answer is yes.

The question whether the US should boycott Beijing has gotten attention recently, and it's about to get more. Earlier this month, more than 160 human rights groups urged the International Olympic Committee to pull back from holding the 2022 games in Beijing.

Weeks before that, the Joe Biden presidential campaign declared that the Communist Party’s campaign of repression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang constitutes genocide. Donald Trump's administration is reportedly weighing a similar designation.

The US government has typically been hesitant to apply that label, for fear of creating a legal or moral obligation to act. But there is no denying that what is happening in Xinjiang represents a special kind of horror.

The Chinese government has forced a massive number of Uighurs — probably upward of 1 million — into what it terms “re-education” camps. It has pressured them to relinquish their language, culture and religion, while subjecting them to forms of political indoctrination that human-rights groups have called brainwashing.

Former inmates have described widespread use of torture and other brutal punishments. The authorities have reportedly locked entire Uighur communities in their homes for long periods during the Covid-19 pandemic, while also subjecting Uighurs to forced labor. Enabling this industrial-scale repression is a network of sensors, cameras and monitoring technology that may well qualify as the world's most intrusive surveillance state.

The state has reportedly dispatched ethnic Han Chinese “big brothers” to share — and monitor — the homes of Uighurs, including women whose husbands have been incarcerated. Most gruesome of all are reports, most recently by Radio Free Asia, of forced sterilization and abortions, and even infanticide, to drive down the Uighur rate of reproduction.

Verifying the precise details of all this is harder than it should be, because Beijing obstructs the work of foreign reporters and human rights organizations. (Beijing says the camps were set up to “combat terrorism” and has warned Western states to stay out of its “domestic affairs.”) Yet there is plenty of evidence to support US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Chinese actions represent the “stain of the century.”

In response, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and state-aligned firms it says are complicit in the human-rights abuses. Even so, China has mostly escaped widespread international censure, in part by using economic coercion or pressuring countries that might offer criticism.

Who can possibly doubt that the Communist Party will use the 2022 Olympics to advertise its power, increase its global prominence and prestige, and demonstrate to its own population that it has made China great again?

Some analysts might answer by saying that the Beijing games can provide a needed symbol of US-Chinese cooperation amid mounting competition. The Olympics, by this logic, offer a source of harmony in a fracturing world. More realistically, though, the democracies’ participation would send the signal that they are unwilling to challenge Beijing’s internal behavior as its external power grows.

Put differently, one reason Beijing didn’t get to host the 2000 Olympics, having to wait until 2008 instead, was lingering discomfort over the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Yet China is set to host another round of games in the middle of abuses that are less visible but far more extensive.

It would be tricky to make a boycott effective. If the US simply followed Trump’s standard pattern of issuing a policy statement unilaterally, without meaningfully consulting America’s friends, it may well isolate itself rather than isolating China. An alternative, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Michael Mazza has written, would be a broadly based boycott by dozens of democracies and other countries — and perhaps organizing a free-world competitor.

If the US chose to take the lead on a boycott, it would undoubtedly have to credibly promise to help nations weather the economic and diplomatic coercion that China will unleash if they stay away. It would require a diplomatic subtlety, discretion and persistence that Trump’s administration has only intermittently displayed.

It will also require building a perception that Trump himself — who privately endorsed Xi Jinping’s policies in Xinjiang, according to his former national security adviser, John Bolton — actually cares about human rights. (If Biden is elected in November, then this endeavor would fall to him.)

In a speech on US-China relations in July, Pompeo announced that the US would rally an “alliance of democracy” to derail Beijing’s authoritarian ambitions. There are those who say orchestrating an Olympic boycott would be a good place to start.


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