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Why the Biden Administration Should Boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics

Beijing National Stadium (by Peter23 via Wikimedia Commons)

On April 6 the US State Department denied that it was considering a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over the Chinese government's human rights abuses, including in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.

"Our position on the 2022 Olympics has not changed. We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners," a senior State Department official wrote in a statement to CNBC.

After years of tough anti-Beijing rhetoric from the Trump administration, voices of appeasement are already reemerging. The Financial Times argued that boycotting the Olympics would be ineffectual and would be the wrong solution. 

Former Ambassador Christopher Robert Hill stated in a recent interview that the United States needs to be proactive in finding ways to communicate and collaborate more closely with China rather than pursuing a policy of decoupling. 

"I do believe that we need to find patterns of cooperation with China,” Hill said. “I think China is the number one foreign policy issue that this administration has to deal with, and with the understanding that we can no more change China than China can change us."

Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University, criticized in an interview with CNBC President Biden's decision to keep the "seriously flawed" U.S.-China phase one trade deal and the tariffs on China.

These opinions reflect an old-fashioned and completely misguided ideology of appeasement that claims that the US has a duty to be friendly with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime no matter what it does. 

In 1989 the CCP massacred peaceful protesters in Beijing and other Chinese cities. A decade later the US became the champion of the Communist regime and sponsored its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). "We can work to pull China in the right direction, or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction," said President Bill Clinton in March 2000.

But not only has China pursued unfair trade pactices for decades, the country's human rights situation has deteriorated. In its 2016 report on China, Freedom House wrote:

"The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tightened its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations in recent years. A renewed push for party supremacy and ideological conformity has undermined rule of law reforms and curtailed civil and political rights. The state president and CCP leader, Xi Jinping, is consolidating personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades. Faced with a slowing economy, the leadership continues to cultivate nationalism, including hostile anti-Western rhetoric, as a pillar of legitimacy. China’s budding civil society and human rights movements have struggled in the midst of a multiyear crackdown."

Many dictatorial regimes were given the privilege of hosting the Olympics: Hitler Germany in 1936, Communist China in 2008, and Putin's Russia in 2014. The Olympics were a great propaganda victory for these dictatorships and all of them cracked down on human rights even more afterwards. By contrast, in 1980 the US and other countries boycotted the Olympics in the Soviet Union

Some people may think that describing the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a threat is hyperbole, or fearmongering, or even racism. But it's not.

In recent years the world has seen a decline of democracy. In 2020, "democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny," wrote Freedom House in its annual report. 

The influence "of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, was especially profound in 2020. Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days. Its efforts also featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China, and the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy. Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has gained clout in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council ... as Beijing pushed a vision of so-called noninterference that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances is promoted."

Beijing's interference is nefarious and dangerous. If we look at what Russia did to interfere in elections in the US and Europe, and to cultivate relationships with business people, we need to understand that the influence of dictatorships is not an abstract issue, it's very real. Authoritarian regimes invest money to spread propaganda and acquire media companies in democratic countries.

Furthermore, autocracies are increasingly forming alliances with powerful corporations. As Anne Stevenson-Yang wrote in an opinion piece for The Market:

"«Free America Now!» tweeted Elon Musk in April 2020, as he refused to close the Tesla factory in California to protect workers from Covid-19. He later called U.S. virus restrictions «fascist.» But Musk did not complain when the Chinese government ordered Tesla’s Shanghai factory to close, calling the disruption «slight» and saying China’s Covid management was better than that of the United States.

"Expressions of admiration for autocrats have served Musk well, and they legitimize the autocrats at home and abroad. Tesla has received tax breaks, cheap land, and at least $1.6 billion in state-bank loans in China. Through his company SpaceX, Musk is a defense contractor, so it is not surprising to find him praising the Russian space agency. «Russia has excellent rocket engineering & best engine currently flying,» Musk tweeted in March 2019."

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg "fawned on Xi Jinping by buying 500 copies of his book, making it mandatory reading for Facebook's top executives, and requesting that Xi give a Chinese name to Zuckerberg’s baby girl. Musk, who has been a promoter of Vladimir Putin, recently invited the Russian president to a chat on Clubhouse.

"Starbucks founder Howard Schultz publicly congratulated Xi Jinping on China’s transition to a «moderately prosperous society,» a Chinese political buzz phrase since the time of Hu Jintao, and Xi responded this January by penning a public letter to Schultz telling him that Starbucks could «promote China-U.S. trade and economic cooperation» and get beyond the current trade and investment frictions."

Democracy today is under siege from domestic extremists, money in politics and foreign regimes. The Biden administration has the responsibility to show that democracy is strong, that it can defend itself, and that democratic countries will pursue a foreign and trade policy based on human rights, labour rights and fair trade. Boycotting the Beijing Olympics would send a clear sign that the era of appeasement is over. 

If the Biden administration fails to stand up practically and symbolically to authoritarian bullies, it will only project weakness, encourage tyrants to continue to engage in their harmful behaviour, and foster cynicism, disillusion and indifference among the people of the United States and its allies. Opposing Trump-style fascism, Putin's regime and the CCP is part of the same struggle for democracy and human rights.


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