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The complicated politics of a Beijing 2022 boycott

China is slated to host the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. But a growing chorus of human rights activists is calling for countries to boycott the games over the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, including the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the US State Department has called a “genocide.”

A coalition of around 180 human rights advocacy groups has issued a “call to action” urging all countries and athletes to boycott what they’re now calling the “genocide Olympics.” If Beijing is allowed to host an Olympics-spectacle-as-usual, they say, it amounts to acceptance of the Chinese government’s atrocities against the Uyghurs, its anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong, and its other human rights abuses.

“For us, if a genocide is not the red line to boycott the Olympic Games, then nothing is,” said Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress, one of the groups backing the campaign.

Some Republican and Democratic politicians in the US, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have also voiced support for some version of a boycott. Pelosi called for a “diplomatic boycott” that would see heads of state refrain from attending while still allowing athletes to compete in the games; Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) proposed an economic boycott and a diplomatic one, urging American spectators not to attend in person to reduce the revenue Beijing makes from their tourism. Lawmakers in other countries have made similar calls.

So far, the Biden administration has said it is not discussing any joint boycott with allies. That may be because pulling off a real and sustained boycott, particularly as an exercise of US foreign policy, is itself an olympic feat.

Olympic boycotts have a complicated and somewhat messy history. The last time the US tried it in earnest — during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, to protest the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan invasion — Moscow registered America’s displeasure, but the effort did little to actually sway policy, while creating controversies at home and denying many athletes their one shot at a medal.

So far, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which represents American athletes, has strongly rejected the idea of a boycott and instead advocates using the games to showcase American values.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the games, has said it must stay “neutral on all global political issues,” though that may be more wishful thinking than reality. After all, politics is a big reason countries vie to host the Olympics, seeing it as a way to signal power and prestige to the world. This is why Beijing is aggressively pushing back against any boycott talk.

The cases for and against a Beijing 2022 boycott will likely roil right up until the games. Few experts think that an Olympic boycott will do anything to meaningfully change China’s behavior; if anything, China tends to double down in the face of international criticism. China also learned lessons from its hosting of the 2008 Olympics, making it much more prepared for objections this time around.

This exposes the dilemma at the core of the debate for countries that want to support democracy and human rights: “If you believe in these values, which the US and many other countries do, you can’t ignore [China’s human rights record] and treat it like it’s nothing,” Jacques deLisle, an expert on Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “On the other hand, we are not in a position — absent really catastrophic costs — to do a whole lot about it.”

Why the idea of boycotting Beijing is gaining traction

The 2022 Winter Olympics were the games no one wanted. Out of six initial applicants, four dropped out: Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; Oslo, Norway; and Stockholm, Sweden. That left two cities standing: Beijing, and Almaty, Kazakhstan — an autocratic country that isn’t exactly a bastion of human rights, either.

Ahead of that vote, activists objected to the IOC’s consideration of Beijing. Choosing the Chinese capital, a petition at the time said, “will endorse a government that blatantly violates human rights. Awarding Beijing the Olympics is a contradiction of the Olympics’ goal of ‘promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’”

Human rights groups also protested the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with Tibetan rights at the forefront of that opposition. In the years since, under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government’s stifling of civil liberties and human rights has worsened. Advocates said that once again elevating China would give it license to act with greater impunity.

But the IOC chose Beijing in a close vote in what was arguably the least worst option: Beijing had hosted a successful 2008 Summer Olympics; it had reliable infrastructure and transportation and money to invest in building those things up. “It really is a safe choice,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the time. “We know China will deliver on its promises.”

That was in 2015. China’s human rights record has become even more troubling since.

The Chinese Communist Party has arbitrarily detained between 1 million and 3 million Uyghur people and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang in what it calls “reeducation centers,” which are basically internment or concentration camps. Detainees are forced to undergo psychological indoctrination and are subject to waterboarding and other forms of torture. Uyghurs have been forced into what amounts to slave labor, making everything from clothes to face masks. Uyghur women have been subject to forced sterilization.

In one of its last acts, the Trump administration determined that China’s actions against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang constitute a “genocide.” Biden’s State Department has backed up that designation, as have others, including the UK and Canadian parliaments.

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has also continued its crackdown on dissidents and smothered Hong Kong’s freedoms with a repressive national security law.

The geopolitics has also become much more complicated. The Trump years marked rising tensions between the US and China, which got even messier in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Trump administration and some GOP politicians blaming China for its mismanagement of the virus outbreak early on.

All of this has helped bolster the idea of a boycott, including among some lawmakers in the US who are eager to push back on China in any way possible.

The idea is pretty simple: Usually, the Olympics are a showcase for the host country. Shunning the Winter Games would send a stinging message to China. And by connecting its treatment of the Uyghurs and its actions in Hong Kong to such a high-profile event, it would raise global awareness of China’s actions and exert a level of pressure that rebukes from the State Department can’t quite accomplish.

But all of that is still pretty hard to execute.

There’s a long history of Olympic boycotts. Whether they work is another story.

When it comes to Olympic boycotts by the US, there are two examples that usually come to mind: the time the US didn’t boycott (in Berlin in 1936), and the time that it did (in Moscow in 1980).

The first example provides the case for participating in the games: By going to the host country, you’re using the platform to promote democratic values.

The second example offers the case against participating: By boycotting, you’re painting the host country as a pariah on the world stage and pressuring it to change course if it wants to get back into the international community’s good graces.

Both courses come with agonizing moral and political calculations that don’t necessarily have satisfying answers.

The first example involved the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. A movement to boycott the games over the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews had gained some serious momentum in the US; although some individual athletes refused to attend, the larger boycott movement failed, and the US and dozens of other countries sent their athletes to Berlin.

But these were also the Olympics where Jesse Owens, a Black man, achieved incredible victories in track and field, creating a sticking-it-to-Hitler mythology all its own (though Owens still faced discrimination back home in 1930s America). And the threat of the boycott did resonate. The Nazi regime tamped down its public anti-Semitism, hiding evidence of its policies. But that also allowed Hitler to obscure the reality of what was happening in Germany, sanitizing the regime and giving him a global audience for Nazi propaganda.

“When you look at Berlin in 1936, there is no question Jesse Owens made a mockery of Nazi racial ideology,” John Soares, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, said. “But that didn’t convince the Nazis to rethink what they were doing.”

Fast-forward to Moscow 1980, when the US did boycott the Olympics. President Jimmy Carter pushed for the boycott in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This wasn’t the only political pressure Carter put on the USSR, but it was seen as one option to publicly undermine Moscow.

For the boycott to work, Carter had to do two things: convince the athletes, and get other countries on board. Both got very messy, though Carter had support from Congress and from the public.

The US Olympic Committee is an independent entity, so Carter had to get them to agree with the plan. Many athletes opposed the boycott, angry at becoming pawns in the Cold War drama. Athletes sued, saying the Carter administration had coerced compliance from the USOC by threatening to revoke their tax-exempt status.

Meanwhile, Carter had trouble convincing other countries to agree. He dispatched boxer Muhammad Ali on a goodwill tour to Africa, only to have Ali change his mind and withdraw support for the boycott entirely. Allies that had seemed eager to go along with the boycott, like Great Britain, ended up sending athletes to Moscow anyway. In total, 65 countries didn’t participate — including West Germany, Japan, and Israel — but 80 did.

In the end, it looked a bit more like the US president strong-arming his country’s athletes and allies than a democratic president standing up to a totalitarian regime.

The USSR went tit-for-tat in 1984: It refused to send its athletes to the games in Los Angeles, claiming the Reagan administration would not guarantee their safety.

There have been other boycotts — some European countries protested the 1956 games because of the USSR’s invasion of Hungary, for example. But Moscow in 1980 was an attempt to really use the Olympics as a pressure point in international politics. While it was symbolic and got attention, that’s pretty much all it accomplished. The Soviets didn’t leave Afghanistan until years later, and that was because it had become a complete quagmire.

“They don’t work,” Nicholas Sarantakes, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College and author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War, said of boycotts. “Generally, because the Olympics — while they get a lot of visibility — they’re fairly minor as far as the activities of a nation-state go.”

“The things that motivate nation-states are far more significant than how many gold medals you win,” Sarantakes added. “It’s been tried several times. And it fails every time.”

And when it fails, the loser isn’t really the governments in question, but the athletes themselves.

In the 1980 boycott, 460 US athletes had to sit out the games, and the Soviets hogged all the medals. Many US athletes never got another chance at Olympic competition. Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the boycott, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee apologized to the 1980 athletes: “It’s abundantly clear in hindsight that the decision to not send a team to Moscow had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you.”

Still, regimes with atrocious human rights records have used the Olympics as an “international seal of approval.” And that, of course, is the exact argument that human rights groups are making against the 2022 Beijing Games.

“To get the opportunity to host the Olympic Games and attend the Olympic Games, when the genocide is taking place, can be seen as an endorsement of the Beijing government,” said Teng Biao, a Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago who supports the boycott.

Advocates say a boycott is the only way to stand up to China. Athletes want to go. The IOC wants to stay out of it.

Advocates told me they’re not against the Olympics themselves, and they do want the games to take place and for athletes to compete. They’re just against having the games in China. As Arkin put it, “we’re really against the genocide Olympics.”

Human rights groups have continued to lobby the IOC to change its decision on China. In September, dozens of groups sent a letter to the IOC asking for the games to be relocated.

Last fall, the IOC and these groups met to share their concerns. But the IOC’s position did not change, and that is why, activists say, they are calling for a full boycott — no athletes, no corporate sponsors, no media money, no foreign dignitaries.

“We would be more than happy to have a postponement for discussion to happen, or for relocation to happen,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet, another organization that is promoting the boycott. “But point-blank, if the IOC fails to postpone or relocate the Olympics, then we believe it’s the responsibility of individual athletes or financial actors — corporations, state governments, to boycott this Olympics.”

Activists have also started to put pressure on sponsors, including Airbnb and the Mars candy company.

But the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee is firmly against any boycott. “We oppose Games boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues,” Jon Mason, spokesperson for the USOPC, told Vox in an emailed statement. “We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and geopolitical issues.”

The USOPC also sent a letter to Congress earlier this month that outlined their disapproval of any such move, pointing to 1980 as evidence for why boycotts don’t work. Instead, the USOPC argued this is a chance to showcase “America’s best.”

The letter noted that Russia had passed anti-LGBTQ legislation ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which the USOPC said became a platform to highlight the contributions of LGBTQ athletes. Indeed, then-President Barack Obama sent LGBTQ athletes to represent the US in its delegation — a nod to the “challenge them on their own turf” approach.

The USOPC suggested that sports — and this moment, after the turmoil of the pandemic — was an opportunity for the world to come together. This is also very much the stance of the IOC, which ultimately has the power to decide where and when the Olympics are held.

“The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition,” the IOC said in a statement to Vox outlining its position. (It’s the same statement it gave to the human rights organizations it met with last year.) “They are the most powerful symbol of unity in all our diversity that the world knows. In our fragile world, the power of sport to bring the whole world together, despite all the existing differences, gives us all hope for a better future.”

The statement said the IOC must “remain neutral on all global political issues” and that just because the IOC selects a city doesn’t mean it endorses the politics of that place. It said it’s outside the IOC’s mandate to change the politics of any given place, though it added that the IOC is committed to making sure principles like nondiscrimination are respected within the context of the games.

But experts and advocates I spoke to basically said: Come on. Claiming neutrality on political issues in an international sporting event where athletes represent their countries and hear their national anthems played when they win a gold medal isn’t fooling anyone. And politics absolutely does influence the IOC’s decision, which is why no one is expecting the IOC to take up a bid from Pyongyang anytime soon.

No games are free from human rights or political concerns, even in liberal democracies. Activists argued that the Tokyo 2020 games — even before the issues with the pandemic — would violate human rights by disrupting transportation and displacing homeless people.

“One of the arguments people will make against a boycott is: if even democratic societies operating under the rule of law are going to be falling short on expectations for organizing Olympics, do you really want to pick on any other regime for its problems that invites closer scrutiny of your problems?” Soares said.

Sarantakes said the IOC sees this as a slippery slope. “Their belief is that they have to have the games, and in essence, they’re right — if they keep putting political litmus tests on things, it might be 20 or 30 years between the Olympic Games,” Sarantakes said. “So their attitude is, ‘The games must go on, and we’re trying to bring the world together.’”

The 2022 Olympics matter to China — but not nearly as much as the 2008 Games did

The Chinese Communist Party sees the Olympics as a tool of its soft power and international prestige. Which is really the only reason to take on the cost and logistics of a massive sporting festival that lasts a few weeks.

But 2008 was China’s “coming-out party,” Thomas Zeiler, professor of history and international affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder, said. “This will be a sort of ‘Now we’re here, we’re docked.’”

Which means the boycott threat, or protests against human rights abuses, just won’t sting as much. “These are nowhere near as important for China as the 2008 games were,” deLisle said. “China is much more secure at this point; they’ve had a big coming-out party.”

China has also experienced pushback on human rights before, during the lead-up to 2008, and has learned its lesson.

“In 2008, they were a little bit taken aback and didn’t fully understand the political lay of the land,” said Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and the Olympics at the University of Missouri St. Louis. “But this is 13 years later — they’re probably more sophisticated now and understand things better now.”

“A major lesson that the Chinese authorities took away at the time was that there was no way to change foreign threat perceptions of China,” Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Centre, told me in an email.

That lesson has only solidified for the Chinese Communist Party since then. They anticipate the criticism, and they know how to respond: by spinning it for the domestic audience and pushing back against critics abroad.

Which is exactly what China is doing. For instance, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Pelosi’s call for a diplomatic boycott was “full of lies and disinformation” and that US politicians were playing “despicable political games” and using “so-called human rights issue as a pretext to smear and slander China.”

Chinese officials have called any boycott “doomed to failure.” The Global Times, China’s state-run media, wrote an op-ed referring to a British politician who called for a 2022 boycott as “hysterical” and “insane.” China has also continued to deny the allegations of genocide against the Uyghurs.

Still, experts said that boycott talk does needle China, in its way. “It pushes their buttons on the issue of impermissible, as they see it, foreign intervention in China’s domestic affairs,” deLisle told me.

“The special thing about an Olympic boycott is that if the discussion of it and the possibility of it gets a lot of attention abroad, it gets more attention at home,” deLisle added. “If China’s sold hosting the Olympics as a big deal and people don’t show up, it makes it a more visible issue in China.”

What a Beijing boycott can — and probably can’t — accomplish

Pro-boycott activists recognize they’re up against long odds. They’re grassroots groups and NGOs, which means they can put pressure on governments and Olympic clubs but can’t sway their decisions. President Biden backing such a move would certainly alter the dynamic, but the State Department has continued to insist that its position on a boycott hasn’t changed.

And even politicians who are backing the idea are trying to thread the needle by suggesting lighter measures, like a diplomatic or economic boycott.

Carter’s experience serves as a lesson in how the optics can really go haywire. If Biden were to get involved, he would need to spend a lot of political capital domestically and internationally to make it meaningful.

Experts said the US government is better off working behind the scenes — pressuring companies on sponsorships, or doing something like sending low-level staffers or no one at all. That might still make a statement, but one that isn’t as risky or politically perilous.

“There are things that the US government can do behind closed doors to make it very clear that they do not want the Olympics to be business as usual,” Sarantakes said. “But I think a boycott is noisy and doomed to fail. And what you’re seeing right now is a lot of empty posturing.”

Relocating the games may have made the most sense, but that timeline is tight, and after the delays and drama around the Tokyo Games, the IOC seems very clear that it wants these Olympics to go forward as scheduled.

Yet advocates said that even the discussion itself is important, and that if they can influence some fans and athletes, that is still a small victory. “We hope at least some athletes can use their influence, their platforms to speak for the Uyghurs, the persecuted people, and to protest,” Teng Biao said.

US skier Mikaela Shiffrin, when asked about the Beijing boycott, said the IOC might have made a mistake in opposing it. “I doubt it’s an easy job, but it feels like there could be more consideration when you’re hosting an event that’s supposed to bring the world together and create hope and peace, in a sense,” she said.

That sentiment may influence the IOC going forward, even if there’s little to be done for 2022. Yet it all goes back to this uncomfortable question of — if not genocide, then where does the red line get drawn?

Santarakes, who recently wrote about why Olympic boycotts have failed, pointed me to a quote from Sam Balter, a member of the US Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal in Berlin in 1936, who was also Jewish. He said it perfectly captured the dilemma of any Olympic boycott.

“I spent a lot of time soul searching, looking for an answer,” Balter told a reporter decades later. “Some told me it was important to compete and show a Jew could win. Others said it was immoral to attend an Olympics in Germany.”

“Even now, after 50 years,” Balter said, “I’m not sure I made the right decision.”

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