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Beijing’s Berlin moment

Don’t let the Olympics overshadow China’s human rights abuses


Japan’s Kisara Sumiyoshi trains for the women’s freestyle moguls skiing competition ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday in Zhangjiakou, China. Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull

Beijing’s Berlin moment
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In 1936, a group of unknown “boys in the boat” from the University of Washington routed Nazi Germany’s finest rowers, winning Olympic gold in Berlin, while African American Jesse Owens put the lie to Aryan supremacy by earning four gold medals. Adolf Hitler brooded in the stands.

Should the United States have participated in Hitler’s Olympics in the first place? Similar questions have been raised about U.S. participation in Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday. The United States’ diplomatic boycott sends an incomplete message. But the real problem is that totalitarian China is hosting the Olympic games in the first place. Our focus now should be on how to prevent a similar scenario in the future.

China’s human rights record is abysmal, seen especially in the ongoing concentration of ethnic Uyghurs in forced labor camps in the Xinjian region, the violent crackdown on Hong Kong last fall, and the ongoing repression of Christians and other religious minorities. How did China get the Olympics in the first place? Perhaps because no one except Kazakhstan bid for the 2022 Winter Games.

At this point, the International Olympic Committee should ban China from participating in 2024 and future Olympics until there is a dramatic improvement in the plight of China’s Uyghurs and Hong Kong.  There is precedent for such an action: The IOC banned South Africa from Olympic participation from 1964 to 1992 due to apartheid.

The good news is that the IOC established a new rule, effective in 2024, that will hold potential Olympic host countries accountable to international human rights covenants. We need to ensure the IOC follows through, but their record is not good.

The International Olympic Committee should ban China from participating in 2024 and future Olympics until there is a dramatic improvement in the plight of China’s Uyghurs and Hong Kong.

In recent weeks, the governments of eight countries have announced diplomatic boycotts (i.e., not sending delegations of public officials to the Games). These governments need to publicly explain the reasons for the boycotts and use the tools of statecraft to push China toward a policy change. Full national boycotts, in which a country forbids its athletes from participating, have happened many times in the past. Sixty-five countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, though this did not stop the lengthy war and undoubtedly rewarded the Warsaw Pact’s athletes with additional medals. Often these boycotts are vapid demonstrations, such as the 20 non-competitive African nations that boycotted the 1976 Winter Olympics in Montreal.

What about the corporate front? We as citizen-consumers should demand that Western companies avoid paying sponsorships directly to the Chinese government at any level and insist that the sources of products be entirely from outside of China whenever possible, including athletic wear and souvenirs. There is a direct tie: The BBC reports that 20 percent of the world’s cotton, and 84 percent of China’s, comes from Xinjian.

What about you and me? Can we as private citizens take meaningful action to change the course of China and its genocidal policies? Yes. The most meaningful thing that Christians can do is to pray specifically and fervently for China. Is your church offering corporate prayer for the plight of millions of people in oppressive China?

Each family can take this opportunity for explicit decisions about viewing the Beijing Games. One family I know will watch the competition but ensure that their children fully understand what is going on in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. We must resolve to overcome abuses such as human trafficking and forced labor. We make progress, in part, by teaching our rising generation of adults to have a global perspective on the sins of totalitarian regimes that repress their own people.

Many Olympic athletes are young, under-resourced, and narrowly focused on their athletic vocation. We should not expect them to be experts on human rights law and international affairs. But there are commentators, retired athletes, and some mature athletic influencers who can have a platform for such commentary, whether past champions like Lindsay Vonn or the enduring Shaun White. Long-time Olympic sportscaster Bob Costas rightly called out China and the immoral reticence of the West to criticize China in a recent interview.

Jesse Owens shattered the myth of Aryan supremacy in Berlin, but that did not stop Hitler. It was governments who appeased Hitler and looked the other way at Axis atrocities from 1933 to 1939. We cannot allow our government to do the same. Sadly, the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics has been far from a clarion call on human rights and justice. We can resolve to do better, as citizens and as governments, to name evil when we see it and deny murderous regimes the opportunity to glorify themselves on the world stage.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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