As Beijing Winter Olympics Near, Global Protests Target IOC and Corporate Sponsors

With the Beijing Winter Olympics less than one month away, activists have seized the moment to spotlight China’s human rights violations and corporate complicity in said violations. On Tuesday, Tibetan and Uyghur activists from several human rights organizations held protests in dozens of cities around the world as part of a Global Day of Action to demand an Olympic boycott. In the run-up to the Olympic opening ceremony, scheduled for February 4, the Chinese government and its critics seem likely to continue competing for control of the narrative, as global condemnation persists

Following protests outside the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in December, activists continued to pressure the International Olympic Committee this week. Tibetan activists protested outside the Olympic museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and rights groups criticized the IOC for failing to address the risk that official Olympic sportswear may have been produced by Uyghur forced labor, as Stu Woo reported for The Wall Street Journal:

The group, the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, said Tuesday that the Swiss-based IOC hasn’t offered credible evidence that Olympic-branded apparel was made without forced labor from China’s cotton-farming Xinjiang region. The group has been a leading voice in a global push to raise awareness of allegations of human-rights abuses in the region.

The group said its concerns center around Anta Sports Products Ltd., a Chinese sportswear giant that is the official supplier of IOC uniforms and other apparel for the Beijing Games. Anta last year publicly said it would keep using cotton from Xinjiang, where human-rights groups and governments including the U.S. allege that Chinese authorities are employing forced labor among the region’s mostly Muslim minorities, including in cotton harvesting. [Source]

Indeed, in March of last year Anta stated: “We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so.” Reports have found that virtually the entire global supply chain for cotton is tainted by forced labor from Xinjiang, implicating dozens of major international companies. When the IOC finally agreed, after months of stalling, to meet with a coalition of rights groups to discuss the issue of forced labor, it imposed strict conditions of secrecy to prevent any public discussion of the meeting, as Vivian Wang from The New York Times reported: 

The talk would be a one-time event. It would be kept confidential before, during and after, the emails showed. And the I.O.C. would listen only.

“For the sake of clarity, during the Exercise the I.O.C. will not be sharing information (other than what has already been shared) with the Coalition,” Ms. Martowicz wrote.

Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur rights group that is part of the coalition, said she found that condition laughable.

“It just tells you that they don’t want to commit to changing things,” she said.

[…] “There’s part of me that thinks,” she said of the I.O.C., “they don’t want to offend Beijing anymore.” [Source]

This week, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region released a statement  criticizing the IOC’s reluctance to perform due diligence on Olympic-branded products

“With one month to go before the start of the Beijing Winter Games, the icy indifference of the IOC to labour and human rights is absolutely chilling,” said Bennett Freeman, a member of the Coalition Steering Committee, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who led the Coalition’s nearly eight months of efforts to engage the IOC. “Our patience and persistence were met with intransigence and arrogance.  The global outrage that the Beijing Olympics will generate may yet disrupt the IOC enough to force its fundamental reform.”

[…] “The IOC has no idea whether the thousands of Olympic-branded products its corporate sponsors and other partners are selling are made with Uyghur forced labour. What’s worse, Olympic leaders apparently don’t care, as evidenced by their failure to perform and disclose meaningful due diligence,” said Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

[…] “Held up against stark evidence of mass incarceration, torture, and crimes against humanity affecting 13 million Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims, the IOC’s willingness to trust Beijing to investigate its own forced labour is completely delusional,” said Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy and Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “The IOC’s refusal to address the atrocities perpetrated by its partner, the Chinese government, is ensuring the Beijing Winter Olympics will be historic for all the wrong reasons.” [Source]

Another major target of this week’s protests was NBC Universal, the American media company that owns the U.S. broadcasting rights to the Olympics. NBC Universal’s payments for these rights provide up to an estimated 40 percent of the IOC’s total income, and rights groups have warned that NBC’s Olympic broadcasts will only help to whitewash the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. As Seton Hall University law professor Maggie Lewis asked, “What does NBC do when covering the opening ceremony and the dancing Uyghurs show up on the screen? Do they have a plan for that?” The NGO Students for a Free Tibet recounted its protests this week outside NBC offices in various cities across the U.S.

In New York, Washington, DC, Boston, and LA, activists from the Tibetan, Uyghur, and Hong Kong communities along with other human rights activists demonstrated their opposition through protests at the NBC headquarters in various cities. Activists in Boston and DC attempted to deliver a letter which calls on NBC to drop their sponsorship of the Games. Despite being outside the headquarters for more than an hour, activists in DC were unable to deliver the letter. In Boston, NBC refused to send down personnel, forcing activists to hand the letter to a security guard outside. Full text of the letter from Washington DC, signed by more than 200 groups, can be accessed here.  

[…] Pema Doma, Campaigns Director at SFT and one of the organizers of today’s Global Day of Action, said: “Today, we demonstrated to NBC that its partnership with Beijing is inhumane and completely contrary to the values of human rights and freedom of press which they claim to espouse. By broadcasting the Beijing Olympics, NBC is making the grave mistake of aligning its own profits with global acceptance of Beijing’s genocide. [Source]

Other corporate sponsors have been similarly called out. This week Robert Hayward, a British Conservative Party politician and former personnel manager for Coca-Cola Bottlers, vowed to lead a boycott against Coca-Cola for its sponsorship of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which he deemed “unacceptable.” Airbnb, another top sponsor of the Winter Olympics, was recently revealed to have numerous listings in Xinjiang on land owned by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary economic organization sanctioned by the U.S. government for its role in the alleged genocide of Uyghurs

During Tuesday’s Global Day of Action, protests popped up in over two dozen countries around the world: Belgium, Australia, Germany, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Japan, Turkey, Norway, France, Canda, Poland, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Sweden, South Africa, Taiwan, New Zealand, and India. The Brussels Press Club also held a live two-hour studio broadcast featuring interviews with activists on the ground, as well as a debate on the boycotts with Peter van Dalen, a member of the European Parliament, and Benedict Rogers, chairman and co-founder of Hong Kong Watch. Meanwhile, outside of the Brussels studio, demonstrators protested in front of the European Union Commission and marched five kilometres to the Chinese embassy.

Pressure from civil society groups has prompted some governments to take more critical stances towards the Beijing Winter Olympics. Just before the new year, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock joined Lithuania’s foreign minister in deciding to personally boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, although the EU continues to exhibit a “cognitive split” on China and is unable to present a united front on the matter. Individual governments, notably Denmark, are wavering under pressure from popular protests and considering joining a diplomatic boycott. In the U.S., the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on Tuesday on “China, Genocide and the Olympics,” which focused on “possible ways to leverage the Olympics to improve China’s human rights practices.” Last summer, the U.S. Congress summoned Olympic corporate sponsors Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Intel, Visa, and Airbnb to explain their financial backing of the Beijing Winter Olympics amid such grave human rights concerns. 

There are increasing claims that international corporate and diplomatic cooperation with the Beijing Winter Olympics enables sportswashing. Amnesty International, which first popularized the term, defines it as authoritarian governments’ use of high-profile sporting events to distract from their human rights abuses and reform their global public image. The Olympics are a public diplomacy spectacle that provides China with a perfect opportunity to do so, as Maria Repnikova described in a recent CDT interview about Chinese soft power. But the spectacle also provides activists with a chance to challenge the narrative before an international audience of billions of viewers. Some have highlighted similarities between the Beijing 2022 and Berlin 1936 Olympics, since a global sporting event allowed each host government to whitewash its persecution of Uyghurs and Jews, respectively. Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, critiqued China’s attempt at sportswashing: “Crimes against humanity are among the gravest human rights abuses under international law, making the Chinese government the wrong host for an event the IOC claims will ‘celebrate humanity.’” 

Integral to the Chinese government’s sportswashing is its warning to other countries to avoid “politicizing” the Olympics. The IOC, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, and Chinese state media have all recently made this argument in response to boycotts. But many critics have pointed out the hypocrisy in their stance, given the fact that numerous countries have diplomatically boycotted previous Olympic Gamesincluding China, which for various political reasons boycotted every Olympiad from 1956 through 1980 (with the exception of a small team sent to the 1980 Winter Games.)

Moreover, the IOC previously intervened to pressure the Russian government over human rights issues surrounding the 2014 Sochi Olympics, while it has pointedly refused to do so with China this year. The IOC also barred South Africa from the Olympics for two decades beginning in 1970, due to the government’s refusal to end its policy of apartheid.

Some religious leaders have also spoken out. On December 30, the Global Imams Council, the world’s largest international non-governmental body of Muslim religious leaders, issued a ruling stating that participation in and attendance at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics would be prohibited.

This week, Xi Jinping inspected Beijing’s Olympic venues, including the National Speed Skating Oval, the athletes’ village, and operations and media centers, and confidently proclaimed that “the world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready.” But there remains some uncertainty about what the world will see once the games begin. Several U.S. Olympians have expressed concern about the human rights situation in China and may use their platform to speak out during the games. Although the IOC prohibits protests during medal ceremonies, it does allow athletes to make symbolic gestures in the arenas before their competitions. Beyond the “optics” of the games, there are the aesthetics: Cat Wang and Jess Ma from the South China Morning Post reported that this week, when organizers unveiled the official uniforms for staff at the Olympic medal ceremonies, Chinese netizens were appalled by the “unbearably ugly” designs:

One netizen commented: “I haven’t seen such old-school designs on garments for years, even my mother wouldn’t dress like this.” The comment received 24,000 likes from other users.

[…] “If the organising committee does not pay attention to a lot of details, the Chinese people will eventually be criticised to death. After all, this is the first time the country has stood in front of the world’s cameras since the outbreak,” another commenter wrote.

“The mainstream media of every country in the world will report this Winter Games. For the Olympic Games, the designs of the costumes and landscapes must be meticulously designed, please realise the gravity of this issue.” [Source]



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