From Beijing 2008 to Beijing 2022: Should We Boycott China’s Winter Olympics?

February 15, 2019

Senator Marco Rubio, co-chair of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China,  is pressuring the International Olympic Committee asking that the city of Beijing be deprived of the hosting rights for the 2022 Winter Olympics games. Rubio argues that the gross violations of human rights in China, particularly in the field of religious liberty, are incompatible with the Olympic spirit. 

2022 Beijing Winter Olimpics logo
Image credits: Lin CunzhenCC BY-SA 4.0

Massimo Introvigne

On February 8, Foreign Policy published a long article on the effects on the human rights situation in China of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, with the provocative title “Beijing’s Olympics Paved the Way for Xinjiang’s Camps.” The article argues that the fact that the West did not boycott the 2008 Olympics was a message to the CCP that they could “get away with anything” and continue their repressive policies without any serious reaction from the U.S. and other countries. Foreign Policy also pokes fun at those “laughable” Western scholars who, in 2008, predicted that the Olympics would lead to openings and liberalizations in China. In fact, the opposite happened.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing have been studied by several political scientists. A consensus has emerged that the CCP wanted to avoid any protest before the Olympics, while opponents of the Party, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, tried to use the Olympic year to attract international attention to their claims.

Protests erupted in Tibet in March 2008 and were harshly repressed. Reports of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang should always be handled with care, as the news is often amplified by the CCP for propaganda purposes. However, most international observers agree that, four days before the opening of the Olympics, two men in Kashgar, Xinjiang, threw grenades at members of the Chinese police, killing twelve of them. Predictably, this has lead to more and more generalized repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the region.

Bitter Winter has documented how social and ethnic protests before the Olympics were also repressed, publishing new material on the Menglian incident of July 19, 2008, when the protest of rubber farmers from the Dai ethnic minority in Southern Yunnan was stopped by the police by killing two of them.

Scholars also agree that the CCP had not expected these protests, and was even more surprised when Westerners sided with the protesters and started manifesting against the passage of the Olympic Torch headed to Beijing, with slogans denouncing the violations of human rights and the repression in Tibet. The CCP’s immediate reaction was to mobilize Chinese students abroad to manifest in favor of the Beijing Olympics and criticize the protesters. The CCP had started before 2008 organizing Chinese students abroad, and Foreign Policy reports that “portrayed as spontaneous at the time, these protests were recently revealed to have been organized directly from Beijing.”

In a study published in 2009, one year after the Olympics, three scholars of Korea’s Yonsei University, Sukhee  Han,  Ho-Cheong  Cheong  and  Pieter Stek, analyzed the Torch incidents within the framework of CCP’s “public diplomacy,” which tries to project alternately the images of the “dominant dragon,” to intimidate potential enemies and opponents both in China and abroad, and of the “peaceful panda,” to win some international sympathy and support. The 2008 Olympics were advertised in the “peaceful panda” style, but protests compelled the CCP to show the teeth of the “dominant dragon,” something it had not exactly planned before.

The Yonsei University scholars concluded that the Torch incidents had negative consequences for China’s international image, and made it more difficult to use the Olympics as a propaganda tool advertising the “peaceful panda” image. However, ten years thereafter, Foreign Policy also noted that the 2008 Olympics where a test of international reactions for the CCP. Tibetan and other protests had been ruthlessly crushed by CCP’s military intervention. What would be the reaction of the West? After all, in 1980, a U.S.-led coalition of the willing had boycotted the Moscow Olympics (the Soviets retaliated against the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984).

But the time of the Olympic boycotts was past. A few European leaders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, declined the invitation to attend the 2008 opening ceremony in Beijing. But nothing worse happened. Most countries argued that for both economic and political reasons the dialogue with Beijing should not be interrupted.

As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing approach, there is no reason to believe that the international community will be any stronger than in 2008 in pointing out the contradiction between the Olympic values and China’s abysmal human rights record. If anything, Europe seems weaker in denouncing human rights violations in China. It is perhaps for this reason that the U.S. is calling for withdrawing the hosting rights of the Winter Olympics 2022 from China rather than for a boycott. But China is an influential member of the International Olympic Committee and can always mobilize several “friendly” countries.

Chances are that the world will have another Chinese Olympics in 2022. Perhaps this is unavoidable, Senator Rubio notwithstanding, but at least we may hope for a remake of the Torch demonstrations of 2008. As the Yonsei study demonstrated, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong in 2008 were able to make the international CCP propaganda before the Olympics largely unsuccessful. A larger coalition of victims of the CCP repression of religious liberty and human rights is now taking shape. Hopefully, it will be able to make its voice heard during the journey leading to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. 

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Author: Massimo Introvigne

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