Last fall, the International Olympic Committee hosted a video call with activists calling for Beijing to be removed from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. During the appeal, activists said the Beijing Games would legitimize the Chinese government’s escalating human rights abuses.
“You, ladies and gentlemen, have your own responsibilities,” replied Juan Antonio Samaranch, chairman of the IOC coordination commission for the upcoming winter games. “We have ours.”
The activists pointed to the mass imprisonment of Muslims in Xinjiang, crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong and the ongoing repression in Tibet. However, IOC officials turned back their questions, claiming that the 2008 Beijing Olympics resulted in better air quality and better public transportation.
Dozens of human rights groups called it the “Genocide Olympics” and asked the IOC to move the Games to another country. Some compared the upcoming competition to the competition that was held in Nazi Germany in 1936. The US and Canada have publicly called on China to treat Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang a genocide.
In response to a detailed list of questions about the article, the IOC said it had considered NGOs’ views on issues such as human rights for the Beijing Games. The committee said it raised these issues with the government and local authorities, who gave assurances that they would respect the Olympic charter.
“Given the wide range of participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the IOC said in an email. “Assigning the Olympic Games to a national Olympic committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.”
The IOC adheres to the human rights principles set out in the Olympic Charter and “takes this responsibility very seriously”.
“At the same time,” it said, “the IOC has neither the mandate nor the ability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.” This must rightly remain the legitimate role of governments and the respective intergovernmental organizations. “
The IOC has repeatedly stressed its neutrality in answering questions about the ethics of hosting the Games in China. However, on the private video call on October 6, 2020, IOC officials went even further.
The call, which lasted more than an hour and was attended by a group of six activists and five IOC officials, started out hopefully but ended tense, according to some of the activists who answered the call.
Officials argued that the Olympics could be a catalyst for better infrastructure. They pointed to the 2008 Summer Olympics, arguing that Beijing had brought about improvements in infrastructure and air quality in hosting that year.
“They still have air quality issues, but the first time they mentioned that the blue sky is called Olympic Blue because … it was the first time they saw blue air in Beijing,” an official said The notes.
Teng Biao, one of China’s most famous human rights lawyers, was on duty. He told BuzzFeed News that he was not impressed.
“It is too difficult to defend the Chinese government on human rights or the rule of law,” Teng told BuzzFeed News. “So you can only find something like environmental policy.”
“The resumption of the Beijing Olympics can be seen as confirmation of the CCP’s atrocities, including the Uyghur genocide,” he said.
Teng lived in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and said that like other human rights lawyers, he was dismissed, detained and tortured in police custody prior to the Games. He said he told officials that his experience shows that holding the Beijing Olympics again can cause harm. The police could not be reached for comment. But IOC officials seemed indifferent, Teng said.
Samaranch, the chairman of the IOC’s coordinating commission, said during the appeal that the Games are “an extraordinary force for good” and bring together people of different races and religions “and even political systems, ladies and gentlemen, even political systems” notes from Seen BuzzFeed News.
“The world lives under many political systems,” he added. “We cannot go and say and support one thing or the other.”
Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, told IOC officials that she had missing relatives in Xinjiang. She said the officials told her they were sorry to hear this, but the world is a complicated place – a memory echoed by the notes as well as other activists present at the meeting.
Arkin told BuzzFeed News that she disagreed with IOC officials. “Everything has gotten worse since 2008,” she said. “We have widespread genocide, we have people in concentration camps, and you tell us the situation has not gotten worse?”
“We suffer from this policy,” she added. “You would never think of hosting the Games in North Korea or anywhere else. Why is China different? “
Dorjee Tseten, student executive director for a free Tibet, said he told officials that he and others risked retaliation for themselves and their families to publicly protest the IOC’s decision. He also noted that many Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans were arrested or killed during the government’s decades-long campaign. Violent demonstrations broke out in Tibet before the 2008 Games, and at the time the IOC President said the protests were a “crisis” for the organization. But the video call officials didn’t seem to care, Tseten said.
“I was shocked,” he said. “How can I explain the cold faces? They didn’t even acknowledge the suffering. “
Arkin, Teng and Tseten said talks with the IOC had resumed since October, including in a second appeal this month, but Arkin said nothing significant had changed. Politicians in the US and Europe, including former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have called on governments in recent months to boycott the Games. Critics say this could unfairly punish athletes. But activists say they see a diplomatic boycott as their only option as the IOC is unlikely to postpone the Games.
Human rights groups are also trying to pressure companies like Airbnb to sever sponsorship ties for the 2022 Games.
Tseten and others involved in protests leading up to the 2008 Games say China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and the abuses in Xinjiang are even less defensible this time around.
“We told them at the end that this was going to be a genocide game,” said Tseten. “And in history, the IOC will go down as part of it.”