Inside the Human Rights Abuses Hanging Over the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games

The U.S. and other countries have announced diplomatic boycotts, while activists are citing the reported persecution of Uyghurs and others in China, the 2022 Winter Games' host country

Beijing Olympics Protest
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Last year, the International Olympic Committee modified the longstanding official Olympic motto from "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to "Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together." The small change was meant to reflect a spirit of unity and solidarity for the Games.

Ahead of Friday's opening ceremonies at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, that message is muddled by controversy over reported human rights violations by the Chinese government.

In December, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, indicating that no official representatives will attend — unlike last year, when First Lady Dr. Jill Biden led a U.S. contingent at the Tokyo Summer Games — though American athletes are still allowed to compete.

In a briefing this week, Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses" in the administration's decision to send a message of disapproval to the Chinese government.

"U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of the [People's Republic of China]'s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang," Psaki said. "And we simply can't do that."

Beijing olympics
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Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.K. and others followed suit, giving similar reasons for their government officials to stay home rather than show up at the Winter Games.

Though the boycott is largely symbolic given the participation of athletes and extensive global media coverage planned for the weeks-long event, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted, calling the move an "outright political provocation" and warned of consequences.

What's behind the controversy? And why are human rights advocates referring to China's moment in the Olympic spotlight as the "Genocide Games?"

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The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a province in northwest China, is home to various ethnic groups — including 12 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim groups — who've faced systematic oppression by Chinese authorities, according to human rights organizations and detailed media accounts.

Human Rights Watch reports that up to a million people from the province have been sent to prisons, detention centers and "political education" camps, where they many endure long sentences, torture, hard labor and political and cultural indoctrination.

The lessons forced on people in the education camps amount to "permanent brainwashing" and "forced cultural assimilation," according to a Uyghur woman, who had been detained for two years but now lives in France, ABC News reported in 2021.

Gulbahar Haitiwaji wrote a book with a French journalist about life inside a re-education camp near the city of Karamay. In Survivor of the Chinese Gulag, she described spending long days in windowless rooms, where students were required to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly and taught a glorified version of Chinese history.

She wrote that she was once chained to a bed for 20 days while detained and had to hide from surveillance cameras when she prayed.

Haitiwaji also claimed detainees where she was held were forced to exercise to the point of exhaustion. "Sometimes, some pass out," she wrote in the book, ABC News reported. "If a prisoner remains unconscious despite the cries of the guards, one of them comes to pick her up unceremoniously with a pair of slaps."

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The Chinese Embassy in France called Haitiwaji's story a fabrication and claimed she had been engaged in in separatist and terrorist activities.

In December, President Biden signed a law to ban imports from Xinjiang and allows for sanctions on individuals taking advantage of forced labor there.

"This new law gives the U.S. government new tools to prevent goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang from entering U.S. markets and to further promote accountability for persons and entities responsible for these abuses," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, referring to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

"We will continue doing everything we can to restore the dignity of those who yearn to be free from forced labor. We call on the Government of the People's Republic of China to immediately end genocide and crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," Blinken added then.

Beijing Olympics Protest
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The designation of genocide is backed up by stories of "forced birth control and sterilization policies," the Associated Press reported in December, as well as witnesses and experts who said during an independent tribunal conducted in London that Chinese authorities engaged in torture, forced abortions, rape and other physical abuse of prisoners in Xinjiang detention centers.

Again, Chinese officials at the London Embassy denied the claims and condemned the tribunal as a "political tool used by a few anti-China and separatist elements to deceive and mislead the public," according to the AP report.

On Jan. 21, the Human Rights Watch was joined by other advocacy groups from around the world in calling for more governments to join the boycott of the Winter Games in Beijing and "for athletes and sponsors not to legitimize government abuses," according to a press release from the coalition of organizations.

"It's not possible for the Olympic Games to be a 'force for good,' as the International Olympic Committee claims, while the host government is committing grave crimes in violation of international law," China Director at Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson said in a statement.

Summer Olympic Games in Beijing China 2008
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The group addressed the alleged abuses in Xinjiang but also pointed to the "decimation of independent media, democratic institutions, and rule of law in Hong Kong" — a city that nominally operates under a separate system from mainland China but which has seen its laws and society increasingly controlled by the government, amid widespread protests.

Human Rights Watch also criticized the "prosecution of people exercising rights to free expression, peaceful assembly, and association on behalf of vulnerable populations" elsewhere — like in Taiwan and Tibet — while pointing out religious groups and journalists who've been targeted in crackdowns.

The IOC has remained mostly silent on the subject of human rights violations in its host nation.

The organization, which oversees the Games, was asked to meet with activists who wanted to discuss the use of forced labor in the production of official Olympic merchandise. Despite agreeing to meet for a secretive "active listening exercise," the Committee later backed out completely, The New York Times reported in January.

The committee's head of human rights sent an email to the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region. "While the IOC will continue strengthening its work in relation to labor rights," the email reportedly said, "we regret to conclude that your organization and the IOC will not be able to engage in a dialogue this time as a result of differences in approach, including regarding scope, process and confidentiality."

Beijing Winter Olympics
Beijing Winter Olympics. Wang Xin/VCG via Getty

In December, just before the U.S. announced its diplomatic boycott, IOC President Thomas Bach gave an interview with German news agency DPA.

"What is our responsibility and what are our limits?" Bach said, Reuters reported. "Our responsibility is to run the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter ... and to bring together the athletes from 206 teams and the IOC refugee team under one roof."

"Going beyond this, expecting that Olympic Games can fundamentally change a country, its political system or its laws, is a completely exaggerated expectation," he continued. "The Olympics cannot solve problems that generations of politicians have not solved."

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