‘A diplomatic boycott is not enough’: lawmakers press Olympics’ US sponsors

When the White House announced this week that it would not send any officials to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, the response from Congress was swift – rare bipartisan praise, followed by another demand: US corporate sponsors of the Games should do the same.

“We continue to argue that a diplomatic boycott is not enough,” said Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, both Democrats and co-chairs of a congressional panel that focuses on China policy.

“At the very least, the American corporate sponsors of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should also refuse to send senior executives to the Games in Beijing.”

It was the latest sign of growing anger in Washington towards giant US corporations with business in China that have stayed silent on the country’s human rights record – now with a focus on the companies that have paid billions of dollars to sponsor the Winter Games, which begin in February in Beijing.

Lawmakers have expressed concern that even as US President Joe Biden has taken the rare step of ordering a diplomatic boycott of the Games, the US corporations sponsoring them may be undermining Washington’s ability to send a clear message to Beijing.

“They preach social justice, and that helps their balance sheet in the United States, and ignoring human rights helps their balance sheet in China,” said Representative Mike Waltz, a Republican from Florida.

“I think the American people are sick and tired of the hypocrisy with Coca-Cola, with Airbnb, with Procter & Gamble,” he said. All three are Olympic sponsors, along with Visa and Intel.

“That hypocrisy absolutely undermines any type of principled stand against what the Chinese Communist Party are doing to its own people and around the world,” he said.

In particular, officials and lawmakers in Washington have cited Beijing’s policies targeting Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s far-west Xinjiang region, including mass detentions, forced assimilation and the use of forced labour, as a reason to stay away from the Olympics.

Washington and multiple parliaments in Europe and Canada have described the situation there as genocide. Other observers classify them as crimes against humanity.

The Chinese government denies all claims of human rights abuses, and says it is helping lift the population out of poverty and away from “extremism”.

With Xinjiang in mind, the line coming from the White House when it announced the diplomatic boycott is that these Olympics are not “business as usual”. White House press secretary Jen Psaki used the phrase five times when she announced the policy on Monday.

“This is just sending a message that, given these human rights abuses, we cannot proceed with business as usual,” she said.

At a State Department briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Ned Price did not directly answer a question about whether the administration was concerned that the US message to China could end up being muddled by America’s own corporations.

“Just as each country will need to make a sovereign decision about its approach to the Olympics, each company will need to make a private decision about its approach to the Beijing Olympics,” Price said.

Representatives from the five US companies listed as top sponsors of the Olympics – Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Visa – did not respond to requests for comment.

China-based Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, is also an Olympic sponsor.

At a congressional hearing in July, executives from the five US corporations were chastised by members of both parties for refusing to say anything that might anger Beijing and cost their companies market access in China.

Waltz is also a sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would impose a four-year ban on the US government from contracting with businesses that sponsored the 2022 Games. The bill was co-led by Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Representative Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, both Democrats.

Airbnb, one of the top Olympic sponsors, has faced additional criticism over recent reports that it was renting properties on land owned by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), the quasi-military organisation that was sanctioned by the US last year for human rights abuses.

In a letter to the company’s CEO this week, Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, called on the company to withdraw its support for the Olympics.

“Airbnb bills itself as ‘using technology to facilitate human connection’, but by supporting the Beijing 2022 Winter Games as part of its partnership with the International Olympic Committee, Airbnb risks doing just the opposite and legitimizing Beijing’s actions,” Rubio wrote.

Waltz, the Florida congressman, said it once was possible for the entire country and much of the world to align on such a major human rights issue – he cited the movement against apartheid in South Africa – but things were different now with China.

“Every politician, every company, everyone was unified – and the IOC and international organisations were unified – when it came to apartheid,” Waltz said. “Yet not the gross abuses of this dictatorship.”

“And the biggest delta, the obvious elephant in the room, is the amount of money they’re making,” he said.

“I just think we need to be honest and clear-eyed about that, and we’re going to continue to point it out and call it out.”