US lawmakers turn up heat on American sponsors over Beijing Olympics

New Delhi (CNN Business) US lawmakers are piling pressure on major American corporate sponsors of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as tensions between the United States and China over human rights and other issues remain high.

A bipartisan committee of US politicians questioned representatives from Airbnb, Coca-Cola (COKE), Intel (INTC), Visa (V) and Procter & Gamble (PG) about the Games during a Tuesday hearing focused on “Corporate Sponsorship of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.”

Washington has been highly critical of Beijing’s alleged actions in the western region of Xinjiang, where the US State Department says that up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have been placed in a sprawling network of detention centers. On January 19, the outgoing Trump administration declared that the Chinese government was committing genocide in the region.

China has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses, saying the centers are necessary to prevent religious extremism and terrorism. And earlier this year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that allegations of a genocide in Xinjiang “couldn’t be more preposterous.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday that some US politicians were attempting “to smear and discredit China in an attempt to interfere with and hinder the preparation and holding of the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

“This is a serious violation of the spirit of the Olympic Charter and damages the interests of athletes from all countries and the international Olympic cause,” he said at a regular press briefing. “The remarks of these congressional members are full of arrogance, ignorance and lies. This is a typical American farce, and is bound to be unpopular and unsuccessful.”

The bipartisan Congressional committee, meanwhile, said that U.S.-based companies who sponsor the Olympics may have to “manage the material and reputational risks” if they do not press China to make “concrete human rights improvements” before the Games.

“Holding the 2022 Winter Olympics in China and allowing its authoritarian government to reap the rewards in its prestige and propaganda of hosting this globally-beloved event does not uphold the Olympic spirit,” Senator Jeff Merkley, chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said during his testimony.

During the hearing Rep. Christopher Smith asked representatives from the five companies how they could “reconcile their ostensible commitment to human rights with subsidizing an Olympics held in a country which is actively committing human rights abuses up to and including genocide.”

He asked the executives whether the Games should be relocated.

“As long as governments are allowing the athletes to attend the games, we as Visa will be there to support or sponsor them,” said Andrea Fairchild, Visa’s senior vice president of Global Sponsorship Strategy.

David Holyoke, head of Airbnb’s Olympics and Paralympics Partnership, said that the company’s partnership with the International Olympic Committee is “not focused on Beijing or any other single games.”

And Intel executive vice president and general counsel Steven Rodgers said that the company has “not stated a position on the location of the games.”

Rep. James McGovern asked the representatives whether they would consider following in the footsteps of companies that have decided to play a subdued role in the ongoing Tokyo Games because of widespread concerns about coronavirus-related risks. The event is being held despite a state of emergency due to the pandemic. Top sponsor Toyota chose not to run commercials related to the Games in Japan, and some CEOs decided to skip the opening ceremony.

Procter & Gamble’s Sean Mulvaney, senior director of global government relations and public policy, said the company was “holding off” on marketing decisions to hear the commission’s perspectives.

And Visa’s Fairchild said that the company is focused on Tokyo, adding that it is too soon to make other decisions given the pandemic.

Asked for further comment, Airbnb told CNN Business that the company looks “forward to continuing to share more information with the Commission regarding our work to support Olympic and Paralympic athletes and our ongoing commitment to enabling economic empowerment in communities around the world.”

Coca Cola said that it did not have anything to add to its remarks to the Commission. The other companies did not respond to a request for comment.