We are Uyghur and Tibetan activists. We call on the United States, Canada and like-minded countries to coordinate a global boycott of the 2022 Olympics in China.
By Zumretay Arkin and Lhadon Tethong
A movement calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics is gaining momentum. State Department officials have recently denied reports that the U.S. is coordinating with allies to boycott the event, but one thing is certain — this news will be very concerning to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). That the IOC was already worried about a full-blown boycott was clear to us after a meeting we had last month with senior IOC staff, where they made numerous arguments against the launch of a campaign to boycott the upcoming Winter Games.
At one point, trying to downplay China’s genocide against Uyghurs, they appeared to liken the Uyghur concentration camps to America’s detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, engaging in a perverse whataboutism to defend the indefensible. This kind of gross false moral equivalence, though routinely peddled by the Chinese government, was deeply disturbing to hear from the world’s premier sporting body.
In the meeting, IOC staff instructed us on why a full boycott campaign would be neither appropriate nor effective. Interestingly, they asked if we had seen the New York Times op-ed by Senator Mitt Romney — who is also known for his role in saving the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 — calling for a partial shunning of the Games. In the kind of “boycott lite” that Romney is proposing, athletes would attend and compete but diplomats would send dissidents in their place on official delegations. They referred to his suggestion as “quite interesting” and “thoughtful,” making us wonder if they had coordinated with Romney to deflate the growing demands for a full boycott.
The truth is that there is no elegant solution when it comes to genocide, no halfway measures that can alleviate crimes against humanity. And considering China’s current human rights crackdown, it is wrong to think “dissidents, religious leaders or ethnic minorities” could be invited to participate in a diplomatic protest without facing serious consequences. One need only to consider the recent kidnappings of Beijing’s critics from foreign shores, or the now more than 2-year long arbitrary detentions of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Korvig, to know that Beijing is playing by its own rules. Put simply, there is no morally justifiable way to participate in a sporting event in a country where genocide is unfolding in real-time. A Romey-style “boycott lite” would constitute tacit approval of China’s atrocities.
If there was a time for a partial boycott, it might have been back in 2008 when Chinese leaders at least appeared willing to follow the rules-based international order. At that time, one of us, Lhadon, led a global campaign to protest the Olympic Games, including attending meetings to try to get the IOC to see the seriousness of China’s repressive policies in Tibet and beyond. She was detained, interrogated and deported for video blogging about China’s oppression of Tibetans during the one-year countdown to the Beijing Games in August 2007, and shortly after trying to meet with Jacques Rogge, the IOC President at that time, at a Beijing hotel.
Just seven months later, Tibet was rocked by protests. The protests were met with a swift and brutal clampdown that continues to this day. Since that time, China has cut Tibet off from the world. Beijing’s logic seems to be: if nobody gets in or out, and no information escapes the plateau, there should be nothing for the world’s media to report on. Sure enough, Tibet hardly makes the news these days.
Behind this enforced silence, Tibetans are being crushed with such intensity that Tibet is now ranked as the least free place on earth, tied with Syria by the human rights watchdog Freedom House. Millions of Tibetan nomads have been displaced from the grasslands and forced to live in isolated reservation-style houses with little to no access to viable livelihoods. Tibetan children, some as young as three, are being sent to “boarding schools” where they must learn and speak in Chinese language and face political indoctrination — a cradle-to-grave project of cultural assimilation that repeats the worst horrors of Canada and Australia’s residential schools for indigenous children.
We have been working to get the IOC to see the urgency of these issues since 2015 — ahead of the decision to award China another Games — but the IOC couldn’t care less. Even after hearing about the alarming situation in East Turkistan, including stories of Uyghur camp survivors who have experienced systematic rape and forced sterilizations, and even after one of us, Zumretay, explained directly how her own family member has disappeared into the vast network of China’s camps, the IOC appears unmoved. Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of the crimes China has committed, they persist in arguing over the merits of our strategy and stick to an outdated script that insists the Olympics are a “force for good” and that sport can be separated from politics, even when the host government is charged with genocide.
In the age of Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement, when athletes are now applauded for “taking a knee” against social and political injustices, and European soccer players are openly protesting for human rights in Qatar ahead of the FIFA World Cup, how can the IOC continue to hold such an outdated, tone-deaf position? As the Olympic champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin said recently, the IOC should know better than to constantly put athletes in a position where they have to make the terrible choice between their morality and their occupation. No athlete of conscience wants to win a medal in an event that will go down in history as the Genocide Games.
Perhaps, as the IOC representatives argue, all countries have their human rights problems and Olympic boycotts are not the default tool to solve them all. But we believe there has to be a red line — one even the IOC is not willing to cross. And if the Olympic host is guilty of large-scale abuses warranting a serious global debate on whether to classify them as crimes against humanity or genocide, that is a clear sign of the red line. And if the IOC can’t see it, our elected leaders must.
This is why the rights groups we represent are calling on the U.S., Canada and all like-minded governments to do the right thing and organize a full boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. Anything less, as a response to genocide, would be unconscionable.
Zumretay Arkin is a Uyghur activist and program and advocacy manager for the World Uyghur Congress.
Lhadon Tethong is a Tibetan activist and director of Tibet Action Institute.