In 2022, China is due to host the Winter Olympics. Yet increasingly, people are asking: Does a regime accused of atrocity crimes and grave breaches of an international treaty deserve to host this prestigious sporting event? Earlier this week, a coalition of human rights groups delivered a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) urging it to revoke Beijing’s hosting privileges.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has always been repressive. But over the past eight years since Xi Jinping took power, that repression within China’s borders has taken on an entirely new level of intensity, just as the regime has become more aggressive abroad.
Last month the World Uyghur Congress, through barrister Michael Polak, submitted an official complaint to the IOC’s Ethics Commission requiring a ruling on their allegations that refusing to reconsider holding the Games in Beijing was in breach of the Olympics ethical code.
As more evidence emerges of the regime’s crackdown on the Uyghurs and other Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) – which the Uyghurs call “East Turkestan” – a picture of crimes potentially tantamount to genocide is coming to light. That ought to matter for the IOC’s ethics code.
A network of prison camps has been established in which at least a million – perhaps as many as 3 million – Uyghurs have been incarcerated, subjected to systematic and severe torture, sexual violence, and slave labor.
Beyond the camps, a surveillance state monitors Uyghurs’ every move, using artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology, cameras on every block and even Chinese agents living with Uyghur families in order to monitor them 24 hours a day, straight from the pages of George Orwell’s “1984.” “People don’t even have the freedom to breathe,” my friend Uyghur friend Kuzzat Altay told me 18 months ago.
Religious freedom has been a specific target, as mosques and Muslim burial grounds are destroyed. Growing beards of a certain length or wearing headscarves can result in detention. Religious acts such as fasting during Ramadan, or praying, are punished, and Uyghurs have reported being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.
Evidence has emerged of the transfer of Uyghurs across China for slave labor in factories manufacturing for high-street brands and multinational corporations.
And researcher Adrian Zenz has published new evidence of the forced sterilization of Uyghur women. As a statement by 76 faith leaders last month noted, “recent research reveals a campaign of forced sterilization and birth prevention targeting at least 80% of Uyghur women of childbearing age in the four Uyghur-populated prefectures – an action which, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, could elevate this to the level of genocide.”
Earlier this week, a courageous Uyghur doctor told ITV that she had personally conducted at least 500 to 600 operations on Uyghur women including forced contraception, forced abortion (even in the last two months of pregnancy), forced sterilization, and forced hysterectomies. She said that on at least one occasion a baby was still moving when it was discarded into the rubbish. Others report killing babies by injection if they survived late abortion.
China’s state media has declared that the aim in this crackdown on the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” As the Washington Post put it in an editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.” High-level Chinese government documents leaked last year speak of showing “absolutely no mercy.”
And that’s before we’ve even looked at the crackdown on Christians, the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the repression in Tibet, and the destruction of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms and autonomy.
Over the past five years especially, thousands of crosses have been torn down, many churches destroyed or closed, and Christian clergy jailed.
A recent report by CSW called “Repressed, Removed, Re-educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China” documents the increasing repression of religious freedom, and points to the case of Protestant pastor Wang Yi, jailed for nine years just after Christmas on charges of subversion – simply for standing up for his beliefs. Pastor Wang has described the regime’s campaign as a “war against the soul.”
Just over a year ago an independent tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the British barrister who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, found evidence of widespread and systematic forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, amounting to crimes against humanity. The China Tribunal’s judgment concluded that anyone engaging with the regime in Beijing should be aware that they are “interacting with a criminal state.”
Although the campaign against the Uyghurs is the most egregious, the assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms is the most shameless.
China signed a treaty with Britain, registered at the United Nations, to guarantee Hong Kong’s civil liberties, rule of law, and autonomy at least until 2047, under the “one country, two systems” principle.
While that principle has come under increasing strain over the past decade, overnight on July 1 it was broken irrevocably as Beijing imposed on Hong Kong a draconian new national security law that criminalizes “subversion,” “secession,” and “collusion” with foreign political entities – making it potentially illegal for Hong Kongers to talk to foreign politicians, journalists, or activists, to advocate for sanctions, or to demand universal suffrage.
In the two months since the law was imposed, activists have been arrested, freedom slogans and songs have been banned, a pro-democracy newspaper has been raided, and foreign journalists have been denied visas. Books have been withdrawn from libraries, the school curriculum censored, religious freedom undermined, and activists in exile beyond Hong Kong threatened with arrest warrants given the security law’s extraterritorial application. What was once one of Asia’s freest cities is now under the boot of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
All of this, therefore, ought to give the IOC pause for thought.
The Olympic Charter states clearly that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” It also establishes as a fundamental principle respect for “rights and freedoms … without discrimination of any kind.” It is extremely unlikely that any religious adherents who have fallen foul of the regime would be permitted on the Chinese team – and that being so, surely China is in breach of the Olympic Charter for discriminating on the basis of religion.
I fully recognize the argument that we should not politicize sport. But nor should we compromise the conscience of sport.
The best solution would be if the IOC agreed to change the location of the 2022 Winter Olympics because of atrocity crimes against Uyghurs, other grave human rights violations and the assault on Hong Kong. There are many potential hosts: South Korea (which held the last Winter Games), Japan, or farther afield in Switzerland, Norway, or Canada. There are many countries with the facilities and the weather conditions capable of hosting at short notice. That would be the best solution.
If that’s not an option, the second possibility would be for the political and official representatives of the free world to refuse to take part, just as many did with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. No royals, not even minor ones; no ministers, not even junior ones; no ambassadors or diplomats, not even any sporting committee members or chambers of commerce. No show. And there should also be public pressure on corporate sponsors and suppliers to withdraw.
The third option is that, however unpalatable and whatever political distancing we deploy, we use Beijing 2022 as an opportunity both to make a protest and seek a dialogue.
Whichever of these three options we decide upon, there are two further points.
For athletes themselves, I don’t call for a boycott, because I don’t believe in the politicization of sport. The decision has to be theirs, and theirs alone.
But I hope every athlete will wrestle with their conscience as to whether it is morally right to compete in a Games hosted by a regime that slaughters babies, forcibly extracts human organs from prisoners of conscience, and destroys freedom in absolute breach of its treaty promises. That decision athletes have to make and live with.
And for every potential spectator – whether in the stadiums or on television – I hope you too will wrestle with the choice as to whether to watch the athlete who can run free or support the person in shackles who can’t.
That – ultimately – is the consumer’s choice.
I hope that the IOC, and world leaders, will show the way – and stop Beijing 2022. In making their decision, they should think of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics – and what that ushered in.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).