China's oppression in Tibet, the status of the exiled Dalai Lama and its treatment of ethnic minorities sparked violent protests ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It could happen again.
China is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics with a boycott and calling for the Games to be postponed from Beijing for alleged human rights violations.
The international Olympic President Thomas Bach was represented with this request before the board meeting of the body in Switzerland on Wednesday by a coalition of human rights groups representing Tibet, Uyghurs in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and others. In a letter, the group called on the IOC to "reverse its mistake in giving Beijing the honor of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics".
The letter said that the 2008 Olympic Games failed to improve China's human rights record and that an "Orwellian surveillance network" has since been set up in Tibet and more than a million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, have been detained. It listed a litany of other alleged abuses from Hong Kong into the Inner Mongolia region as well as intimidations against Taiwan.
China has repeatedly denied the charges and accused other countries of meddling in its internal affairs. It first denied the existence of the Uyghur camps and then said they were vocational training centers to fight terrorism.
"Through vocational education and training, Xinjiang has taken preventive measures to combat terrorism and de-radicalization, effectively contain the once frequent terrorist activities and protect the rights to life, health and development of all ethnic groups as best as possible," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said last week: " There has not been a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the past four years. "
The International Olympic Committee argued that the 2008 Olympic Games would transform China and improve its human rights record. Instead, they are often compared to Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics. an authoritarian state that uses the games as a stage.
An editorial in the Washington Post earlier this month suggested China should lose the Olympics. "The world has to wonder whether China, which is slowly strangling an entire people, has the moral justification to host the 2022 Winter Olympics," it said. "We don't think so."
These are precarious times for the Switzerland-based IOC. Its finances – and those of 200 national Olympic committees and dozen of Olympic sports federations – have been rocked by the Tokyo Olympics being postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19.
Bach warned of boycotts two months ago but said he was not referring specifically to Beijing. The Swiss-based company generates 73% of its revenue from the sale of television rights and 18% from sponsors and has stalled its revenues due to the delay in Tokyo.
After the exit of European cities such as Oslo and Stockholm, the IOC only had two bidders for 2022: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Beijing won by four votes and brought the Winter Olympics to a country with no tradition – but a huge, untapped market.
Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the IOC member overseeing Beijing 2022, declined to answer questions from AP about reported human rights abuses in Xinjiang, citing comments from the IOC.
"Allocating the Olympic Games to a national Olympic committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in the country," the IOC said in an email to The Associated Press.
The IOC said it had received "assurances" on human rights issues from China, adding that it had to "remain neutral on all global political issues".
The IOC included human rights requirements in the host city's treaty for the Paris 2024 Olympics, but did not include these guidelines – the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – for Beijing. Paris is the first Olympiad to contain the standards long demanded by human rights groups.
"NGOs, celebrities and other activist groups will put tremendous pressure on China in the run-up to the Games calling for boycotts, etc.," Victor Cha, former White House adviser on Asia, said in an email to AP. "I think the IOC would be very reluctant to take Beijing away in 2022."
China is hosting the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, which will attract even more athletes than the Summer Olympics.
Athletes have shown their power to support protests against Black Lives Matter in the US and elsewhere. The German soccer player Mesut Ozil, a Muslim with roots in Turkey, spoke out against China and coined the sentence: "Muslim Lives Matter". He was critical of the fact that predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia remained silent.
Murray Hiebert, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such countries do not want to jeopardize their economic ties with China, including the infrastructure investments they receive.
"Indonesia was very critical of Myanmar when it drove around 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees to Bangladesh in late 2017 and early 2018, but officials said little about the Uyghur situation in China," he said.
The IOC is under pressure to revise a rule banning political protests on the medal stand at the Olympics.
Casey Wasserman, who heads the Los Angeles Olympic Games 2028 Organizing Committee, said he wrote to Bach asking him to reform the rule. "I don't think anti-racist speech is political speech," he said this month.
Mary Harvey, the executive director of the Switzerland-based Center for Sports and Human Rights, said athletes who protest against racism and inequality in the United States should have equal rights in Beijing or Tokyo.
However, Lee Jones, who studies Asian politics at Queen Mary University in London, said athletes are unlikely to speak up. The Winter Olympics are much smaller than the Summer Games, in which few Muslim athletes participate.
"Most athletes seem to want to separate sports and politics unless they are directly involved, as is the case with athletic activism in the US," he wrote in an email.
However, Jones said the growing criticism of China's human rights record from foreign governments – particularly the US and some European countries – may make the situation for China more serious than it was in 2008, when the campaign was largely driven by Tibetan activist groups.
US presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign has endorsed the use of the term “genocide” to refer to China's actions in Xinjiang.
He said boycotts are unlikely to change China's behavior, but China could move if its reputation is damaged, especially in Muslim-dominated countries.
"China has responded angrily to any suggestion that it is mistreating even the Uyghur people, let alone committing genocide, so it is likely to react very negatively if other governments start boycotts," said Jones.
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