Foreign Policy

The IOC Ought to Cease Mendacity to Itself Concerning the Beijing Olympics

As the Tokyo Olympics wrap up, thanks to the COVID-19 delay, the Beijing Winter Olympics are just a year away. There is no way to sugarcoat this: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Olympic athletes will be de facto accomplices in police brutality if they take part in the Beijing Olympics. The holding of the 2022 Beijing Olympics not only condones an ongoing genocide—it invites further repression for some of China’s most oppressed populations.

The complicity of the IOC in supporting authoritarian regimes goes back a long way—and the last Olympics in Beijing were controversial enough. The 2008 Summer Olympics began only months after the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, observed every March to mark a major Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation. In 2008, spurred by the Olympics, what began as a springtime protest snowballed into the largest and longest Tibetan protest in 20 years.

As the Tokyo Olympics wrap up, thanks to the COVID-19 delay, the Beijing Winter Olympics are just a year away. There is no way to sugarcoat this: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Olympic athletes will be de facto accomplices in police brutality if they take part in the Beijing Olympics. The holding of the 2022 Beijing Olympics not only condones an ongoing genocide—it invites further repression for some of China’s most oppressed populations.

The complicity of the IOC in supporting authoritarian regimes goes back a long way—and the last Olympics in Beijing were controversial enough. The 2008 Summer Olympics began only months after the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, observed every March to mark a major Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation. In 2008, spurred by the Olympics, what began as a springtime protest snowballed into the largest and longest Tibetan protest in 20 years.

The 2008 protests escalated when Chinese officials arrested more than 50 protesting monks in Lhasa, and other monks later protested the abusive treatment of the arrested monks. The police beat the peacefully protesting monks, which sparked a riot in the area. Tibetans set fire to a police car and a Chinese-owned store. Witnesses state that Chinese officials retaliated by shooting into crowds of Tibetans. An estimated 100 Tibetans were killed. It is no coincidence that the violent reaction from the Chinese police was motivated over publicity concerns for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, set to start several months later, in August.

The international community took notice. Many voices called for a boycott. IOC officials such as Denis Oswald, however, balked at the idea, claiming that patience was necessary for China to become a more free society. The European Union and the Dalai Lama opposed the boycott as well; both hoped the 2008 Beijing Olympics could be potentially leveraged to have China commit to more dialogue on human rights. While U.S. President George Bush attended the opening ceremony, other world leaders, such as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, refrained from attending the opening ceremony.

Today, the notion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) voluntarily committing to further rights seems laughably naive—and the Olympics themselves are likely to be an excuse to tighten repression.

One manifestation of this will be security. After the 1972 attack by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Summer Olympics, any country hosting the Olympics has fair reason to guard against terrorism. But terrorist alarms from China should be regarded with a suspicious eye, since the CCP categorizes minor infractions by Tibetans and Uyghurs as serious crimes.

For instance, Beijing justified extra security measures for the 2008 Olympics as protection against attacks by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a supposed Uyghur terrorist organization whose existence has been largely debunked. Security measures targeted Uyghurs’ access to mosques and nonreligious Uyghur establishments as well. Tibetans also reported arbitrary detainment and deportation. Some journalists and supposedly sanctioned protesters were arbitrarily detained and abused to maintain order and ratchet up intimidation.

Preemptive security measures and escalation of intimidation are the norm for almost every major national event in China. To be sure, preemptive security is a norm in other countries, but the scale and intensity in China is difficult to match, and Chinese security has grown ever more repressive throughout the years. Thousands of social media posts that challenge the party narrative are wiped clean from internet forums prior to national celebrations in the name of “social stability management.” Checkpoints and street closures pepper Beijing in the days leading up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the few foreign journalists left in the country are blocked from access to contentious events.

This summer, busloads of People’s Liberation Army soldiers forced dissidents out of Beijing and conducted door-to-door inspections of resident homes prior to the CCP’s centenary celebration. A hotline for citizens to report on those who scrutinize the party’s official narrative—otherwise known as historical nihilism—was formally established in April in preparation of the celebration.

It is not paranoia that the 2022 Beijing Olympics will lead to unnecessary violence. It has happened before, and not only will it happen again, but under these dire circumstances, it will be far worse. Like ants that persistently rebuild toppled nests, people in China protest at major events in hopes of publicity for their human rights causes. The CCP will impose harsher movement and internet restrictions, but protesters will find a way to rebel despite the possibility of detainment or death. Military police will clash with trembling, unarmed civilians. It is hard to wag a finger at reflexive protests when perennial protesters, such as the Tibetan people, believe they have very little to lose. By allowing Beijing to host the 2022 Olympics, the executive board of the IOC signals that it is willing to sacrifice the well-being of marginalized people for an entirely flexible event.

After the harrowing 2008 Beijing Olympics coverage, the Chinese government strategically expanded the international arm of at least one Chinese state media outlet in an effort to shape Western perceptions of China. Gaudy projections of CCP propaganda desecrated the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple in Lhasa during the centenary celebration—as Beijing will use any event to propagandize Tibet under the Chinese image.

“It comes down to legitimacy. … What you’re sitting through in those events is an extended performance for the benefit of the domestic public to basically legitimize an unelected government, which is why, in short, these things are so important,” Graeme Smith, a Chinese politics specialist at the Australian National University, told Reuters.

It is almost certain the Chinese state will try to use the 2022 Beijing Olympics to elevate its global public image through selective coverage and censorship and to push its propaganda about Xinjiang and Tibet. Scrapping the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, on the other hand, may force a reckoning, even as it prompts a rageful response. It could persuade Chinese leaders to think twice about policies linked to the ongoing Uyghur genocide—no human rights, no Olympics fun.

In 2008, during the last Olympics in Beijing, the plight of Tibetans was dismissed by those in power, and since then the CCP has only become more authoritarian. It is more unconscionable for those in power to ignore the ongoing Uyghur genocide and slavery, the draconian national security law Beijing has forced on Hong Kong, the relentless geopolitical harassment of Taiwan, the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, and the systematic erasure of Mongolian and Tibetan culture. In addition to the increased state repression that will follow with a new Beijing Olympics, a strong claim for a boycott or relocation could have been made for any one of the current atrocities happening in China.

The 2022 Beijing Olympics will be remembered for its violence and the selfish apathy of those who allowed it. The IOC claiming that the Olympics are an apolitical event belies the fact that the Games are a perfect propaganda opportunity for the CCP. It is time for IOC directors to drop the lies they tell themselves to avoid stomaching the reality of the Beijing Olympics.

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