On February 4, history’s second genocide Olympic Games will open with China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach presiding. They will stand before the world as perpetrator and enabler, respectively, of atrocity crimes against the Uyghur people.
The first genocide Games were conveyed in grainy black and white photos in 1936, complete with the Nazi salute at the Opening Ceremony. This time, the Opening Ceremony will be broadcast in full color across the globe. NBC Universal, the IOC, and corporate sponsors will forever have their names and logos linked with this shameful event. They have made their choice: silence in the face of genocide.
In December 2021, when asked about China’s crimes against the Uyghurs, IOC member Dick Pound told a German reporter, “I don’t know enough of the facts.” This is an IOC official, a decorated lawyer no less, asking us to believe he is mostly unaware that one of the globe’s most urgent human rights crises is happening in the host nation of the Olympic Games. Pound’s statement is undeniably “economical with the truth.” It also tells us that genocide is no longer a red line and that the Olympic Charter is worthless.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has been carrying out atrocities targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. In addition to mass arbitrary detention and imprisonment, China is engaging in a systematic campaign to eradicate Uyghur culture, religion, and language through policy and practice. Other abuses include widespread forced labor, enforced disappearances, and coercive birth prevention campaigns and policies.
The evidence for these crimes is irrefutable. Academics, journalists, and human rights researchers have revealed the shocking scale of the repression. As such, several states have declared China is perpetrating a genocide and have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing games. On December 9, 2021, the independent Uyghur Tribunal, overseen by a panel of international experts, found China “has committed genocide, crimes against humanity and torture” against the Uyghur people.
None of the evidence has been of interest to the IOC and their corporate sponsors. Even though the IOC signs multibillion-dollar contracts for broadcast coverage of their games, their representatives say they don’t know “enough of the facts,” apparently finding it difficult to turn on the television and listen to one news report about the Uyghur genocide.
Money is at the heart of such cynical denialism. It’s not just broadcast rights, but also the IOC’s need to keep the sponsorship dollars rolling in. In the United States, seven companies have sponsored the Olympic Games through multi-year contracts: Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Intel, Procter & Gamble, and Visa. It’s likely you have used products from at least one of these corporations this week, even today. The sponsors have repeatedly said they have nothing to do with the host city, yet their logos will be emblazoned everywhere on the venues – that’s what they get in return for their investment. Those images, too, will live forever in infamy.
So, where can we find our voice and agency?
First, we all have a personal stake. China is putting in place a high-tech blueprint for how to get away with genocide: Retaliation against companies that renounce Uyghur forced labor in their supply chains. Blocking journalists from visiting the Uyghur homeland while spending millions on aggressive propaganda showing “happy” Uyghurs who are “grateful” to the Chinese government. This blueprint is a threat to freedom everywhere. Everyone is vulnerable when ambitious authoritarians don’t fear consequences for their atrocities.
Second, we can all participate in a “citizens’ boycott” of Beijing 2022 and refuse to contribute to the fanfare. For a “citizens’ boycott,” I hope people will make the choice not to watch. I’d like to see headlines like: “lowest-ever Olympics viewership” to demonstrate that it doesn’t pay to try to conduct “business as usual” amid atrocity crimes.
Third, even though their products have become indispensable to our lives, corporations need to hear that complicity in genocide hurts their brand. If corporate logic is all about money, that that is where civil society must engage. People must call attention to the link between genocide and a fizzy drink, or a microprocessor, or a vacation rental. The marketing departments at these corporations want you to make positive associations with what they sell. What could be worse than thinking of genocide every time you swipe your credit card?
China needs enablers if it is to continue its genocidal policies toward my people. Currently, it is not hard to find those enablers. The IOC and corporate sponsors have decided where they stand. It’s now clear that the Olympic Charter’s commitment to “the preservation of human dignity” is meaningless. It’s time to end the fiction.