How the Beijing games could backfire for Beijing｜Michael Cox
A Canadian speed skater stands on the podium at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and raises the three-fingered, anti-authoritarian sign from Hunger Games, the hand signal now commonplace at marches accross Asia. At the post-ceremony press conference they launch into a pointed criticism of China’s abysmal human rights record, speaking passionately about the plight of those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, before raising the detention of countrymen Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
However unlikely this hypothetical scenario might seem, a few things have become clear: the Olympics are an unstoppable, soulless corporate entity and the games will go ahead as planned despite China’s egregious human rights record. Secondly, mass boycotts are being talked about and wielded as diplomatic threats from various nations, but — with less than nine months until the games are due to begin — it seems there will be full participation.
So with the inevitability of the games going ahead in mind, the Beijing Winter Olympics present an opportunity for those brave enough to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but even if an athlete does not speak up, the event will place a glaring spotlight on the leadership of Xi Jinping.
Of course, we must start by stating that Canada sending any athlete to a country in which two of its citizens are being held as political hostages isn’t just immoral, it is insane. This is part of what makes so much of the current discussion around boycotts so absurd: that the discussion is centred on gaining moral high ground and political leverage — or dithering over what the precise definition of the word genocide is — when it could simply be boiled down to a matter of personal safety. Leaving aside the fact China’s borders are essentially closed right now and that strict travel warnings would be in place for citizens of many of the countries competing, it is grossly irresponsible to send people to a country with no rule of law, under a totalitarian regime that regularly detains dissidents and is actively engaging in the mass incarceration of religious minorities.
Olympics history tells us that if a brave soul does speak up at the games, they may one day be celebrated as a hero, but in the short term will be treated like a pariah and punished.
That is the hypocrisy at the heart of the Olympics: for all of its progressive ideals and feel good stories, it has an ugly history when it comes to human rights.
The image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith standing on the dais at the 1968 Mexico games, their black-gloved fists raised in protest, is iconic, and their legacy is celebrated today — in 2019 they were inducted into the IOC Hall of Fame — but at the time they were ejected from the Olympic village and then ignored for decades.
Now a protest ban is included in the Olympics charter and even worse, the IOC passes the buck and abandons athletes to local authorities with this ominous kicker: “Any protest or demonstration outside Olympic venues must obviously comply with local legislation wherever local law forbids such actions.” Now Tokyo local laws around political protest are relatively benign, in Beijing it could mean serious time behind bars.
The photo of Smith and Carlos isn’t the only iconic Olympics image of arms being raised. At the opening ceremony of the 1936 games in Berlin, then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler led the crowd in a Nazi salute. The IOC would prefer we forget this image, but it is a chilling reminder of how the games can be used to legitimize the most evil of regimes and normalize repugnant ideas. Part of that Olympic charter also outlaws political propaganda in any sites, venues or other areas, which is no chance of being adhered to in Beijing given the entire event is a propaganda exercise.
Back in 2001, when making the case for the 2008 games being hosted in Beijing, the IOC claimed that it would help the human rights situation in the country. Then-IOC president Jacques Rogge said, “the staging of the Olympic Games will do a lot for the improvement of human rights and social relations in China.”
So just as the idea that the opening of China’s economy to the West would invariably bring democracy to China, the 2008 games clearly did nothing to push its hosts in the right direction, and in fact Human Rights Watch argued — that much like the supercharging of China’s economy — that hosting the 2008 games was “a catalyst for human rights abuses.”
Will these games be any different? Perhaps the biggest difference now is that the CCP is viewed very differently — it is widely distrusted, if not despised — and it seems to lack the self-awareness necessary to take advantage of the public relations platform it has been gifted.
The bad news for Xi is that unlike 2008, the games won’t bring a media focus on all that is good about China, but everything that is bad. It is a chance for CCP dysfunction to go mainstream as the eyes of the world are watching. The CCP’s tone deaf attempts at propaganda and its punishment of those who dare to dissent will be met with hostility.
If it is true that democracy dies in darkness, then authoritarianism should be afraid of the light, and the 2022 Winter Olympics could bring a scrutinizing spotlight that for Beijing — and the IOC itself – might be too bright to bear.
(Michael Cox is a journalist and Hong Kong permanent resident currently based in Australia. He has previously written for the South China Morning Post, The Age (Melbourne) and Australian Associated Press.)
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