Why Democratic Nations Must Boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics

World capitals and Olympic committees will soon need to make a consequential decision. They can either reward and reinforce Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented power grab – at home and abroad – by participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics in the name of “political neutrality,” or they can hold him accountable for his authoritarian rule by boycotting the Games and depriving him of a victory lap on the world stage.

The choice is straightforward. Boycotting the Games in Beijing offers a rare, peaceful and relatively painless opportunity to send an unmistakable signal of disapproval to the Chinese elite, the people and the world at large.

In 1979, the city of Philadelphia entered a sister city relationship with Tianjin, China. Things have changed since those heady days for US-China relations, when every concession was offered to induce a weak, isolated and impoverished China to join the community of nations that abide by the rules of international law, trade and commerce. At the time, the hope was that China would introduce reforms and liberalize its economy and polity.

This turned out to be wishful thinking. Rulers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have shown time and again that their main interest is strengthening their rule, revising the international order in their favor, suppression at home and aggression abroad.

Sounding the Alarm

Finally paying heed to the mounting evidence of an aggressive China bent on global dominance, the US administrations led by Donald Trump and Joe Biden labeled China the number-one national security threat. 

China’s actions and ambitions alarm and unite an otherwise deeply polarized US Congress. Growing numbers of China’s neighbors and other countries around the world are joining hands to reduce Beijing’s malign influence on international institutions before it is too late. As Senator Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in March, “The Chinese Communist Party presents an unprecedented threat to not only U.S. values and interests, but also to the free and open international system characterized by individual freedom and the rule of law — something the United States has carefully built over seven decades.”

So, it is interesting that on October 27, a hundred days before the start of the Winter Olympics in February, China’s consul general in New York, Huang Ping, took out a full-page ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer (“Together for a Shared Future”) and the deputy consul general, Qian Jin, wrote a letter to the editor (“Meet in Beijing for 2022 Winter Olympics”). It is a safe bet that other major American news outlets also received similar appeals to boost awareness and attendance at the upcoming Games.

From 1936 to 2022

China’s anxiety to host a successful Winter Olympics is understandable. Consider the 1936 Summer Olympics, which was awarded to Germany in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler rose to power. Predictably, Nazi Germany used the Games for propaganda purposes, promoting an image of a new, strong, united Germany while masking the regime’s policies of racial supremacy, anti-Semitism and growing militarism.

Eager to impress, Hitler built a new 100,000-seater, track-and-field stadium and six gymnasiums. In the tense, politically charged atmosphere of 1936, the International Olympic Committee, fearing a mass boycott, pressed the German government and received assurances that qualified Jewish athletes could participate and that the Games would not be used to promote Nazi ideology. (These assurances, of course, were largely ignored.) The boycott movement narrowly failed, handing Hitler his propaganda coup and legitimizing his regime domestically and internationally, with 49 nations participating.

China would like to enjoy similar success, hoping that the world will focus on the shiny object (12 new competition venues) and ignore the brutality of the CCP’s single-party rule. But objections are being raised.

On July 27, the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China held a hearing on corporate sponsorship of the Games, questioning representatives from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa and Procter & Gamble. Senator Jeff Merkley, the commission’s chair, said, “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.” Merkley is right.  

China Will Not Cooperate

Still, some argue that engagement with China is the best path forward and that we need Beijing’s cooperation on issues of mutual interest, such as pandemic control and climate change. The folly of this view is exposed by China’s stonewalling of an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19; Beijing refuses to provide samples, records, and personnel. Hopes of figuring out how to prevent future, potentially even more catastrophic pandemics remain just that: hopes.

Likewise, do not expect help on climate change from China, the world’s biggest polluter. Voicing his opposition to the US strategy of competing with China in some areas but keeping an “oasis” for climate cooperation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “surrounding the oasis is a desert, and the oasis could be desertified very soon.” In other words, even on a matter as fundamental as the planet’s future, China intends to push forward with its Sinocentric worldview, no matter the consequences for humanity’s welfare.

The fact is that the CCP has used China’s immense economic, technological, military and diplomatic power not in ways that help its 1.4 billion citizens achieve political freedom or to work constructively with other countries. Beijing intends to perpetuate the CCP’s single-party rule, violate international agreements (the takeover of Hong Kong) and laws (militarization of the South China Sea), commit atrocities in Xinjiang, bully Taiwan and export to other countries its toxic surveillance-state model of controlling its own citizens.

We must not repeat the tragic mistake of 1936. We must deny the CCP the undeserved honor of hosting the Games. We must demand a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.