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Amid human rights abuses, should countries boycott Beijing Olympics?

Paulina Song
Courtesy of Paulina Song

The European Parliament this week voted overwhelmingly to call upon its member states to boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympic winter games due to human rights abuses. The non-binding resolution calls on EU members to “decline invitations for government representatives and diplomats to attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics unless the Chinese Government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.”

In light of this decision, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) tweeted that “The U.S. should follow suit” in his second push for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. In March, Romney advocated that President Biden send a delegation of “Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us” at the Games. Romney served as chief executive of the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi similarly called for a diplomatic boycott in May, saying, “For heads of state to go to China, in light of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats, really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide?” 

The Biden administration has yet to finalize its stance on the Beijing Olympics. 

Church leaders voice conflicting opinions on the matter. The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, is a strong critic of the Communist Party and was banned from China after protesting the 2008 Summer Olympics in Tiananmen Square. Mahoney, a Reformed Presbyterian minister, urges countries once again to boycott the 2022 winter games. 

“How can we honor a country where Uyghurs are living in concentration and forced labor camps, Hong Kong democracy leaders are sitting in prison with no bail, Christian Churches are bulldozed, political and religious dissidents are daily being brutalized and persecuted and so many more human rights atrocities [are occurring]?” he wrote. 

He rallied people in front of NBC’s office in March to protest the broadcasting company’s coverage of the “Beijing Genocide Games.” 

“We call upon NBC not to give the Chinese Communist Party an international propaganda platform before billions of people worldwide for a China that does not exist. The ‘real China’ is one that the government would never allow NBC to broadcast,” read a statement released by the Christian Defense Coalition.

Sports ministry 4 Winds Christian Athletics President Steve McConkey, however, took a different angle on the issue. 

“Every four years, athletes have an opportunity to shine at the Olympics. Countries, businesses, and politicians should not pressure governments to boycott the Games. It will hurt the athletes,” McConkey argued. 

“Instead,” he said, “they should pressure the Olympic Committee to make better choices in the future. We need to pray that people are set free under the repressive government of China. To wait right before the Olympics to boycott is the wrong approach. This should [have] been addressed months ago. Pray for the athletes as they prepare and represent the United States, a country that still is free for the most part.”

Prayer works; pressure, apparently, does not. Many groups advocated boycotting the 2008 Olympics due to similar concerns. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), called on President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony until China significantly improved its treatment of religious dissidents. While some politicians and celebrities did boycott parts of the Games, Bush did not, and China continues to mistreat religious and ethnic minorities.

Experts concluded that the 2008 Olympics was a “soft power win” for China and that the 2022 Olympics has the potential to be the same.

History is repeating itself in more ways than one as Nury Turkel, current vice chair of USCIRF and chair of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, wrote, “The parallels between the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghurs and the Nazi Party’s treatment of Jews and other minorities are undeniable… Although the international community may not have understood the full extent of Hitler’s crimes and intentions in 1936, the CCP’s crimes against the Uyghurs and its escalating human rights abuses throughout mainland China—not to mention the destruction of civil liberties in Hong Kong—are well documented. The international community must ensure the Olympic Games does not take place in the shadow of concentration camps once again.”

President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, however, has stressed that “The Olympic Games are not about politics,” and that “Neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgment regarding the host country.”

Although voices in the Church may be divided on what message participating in the Games would send—and what purpose boycotting would achieve—there should be no division in the Church’s pursuit of justice for the oppressed. No matter what decisions the U.S. and other countries make, the Church must remain steadfast in that purpose. 

Originally published on Juicy Ecumenism

Paulina Song is a summer 2021 intern with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She is studying international politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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