Human rights lawyers debate whether the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against Uyghurs and other Muslims represents a genocide, since authorities are interfering with women’s ability to bear children, or “merely” a crime against humanity. Either way, it is hard to imagine corporate executives gathering at the Opening Ceremonies to validate the regime’s celebration of itself as though nothing were going on.
When I wrote in April, the chairman of Coca-Cola was attacking Georgia for its new voting law and promising “to stand up for what is right in Georgia and across the U.S.” Across the United States, but apparently no further; neither Coke nor the 14 other Olympic sponsors, whom the International Olympic Committee calls “crucial to the staging of the Games,” had been deterred by China’s assault on its Muslim population.
But in recent days, Toyota did decide to withdraw all Olympic-themed advertising from television coverage in Japan, and its chief executive let it be known that he had changed his mind about attending the Opening Ceremonies. Other CEOs followed suit.
“There are many issues with these Games that are proving difficult to be understood,” Toyota Chief Communications Officer Jun Nagata explained.
What might those issues be?
Well, the director of the Opening Ceremonies was fired last week after he was revealed to have made an offensive joke about the Holocaust more than two decades ago. Earlier, the 83-year-old president of the Olympic organizing committee was forced to resign after complaining that women talk too much during meetings.
And Japan has struggled to host a safe Olympics while covid-19 stalks the globe. The stands are empty, and many Japanese are unhappy that the Games are being held at all.
Note, however, that those Japanese are free to express their displeasure without fear of disappearing into prison.
While Toyota was being scandalized by developments in its home country, police in China were arresting members of the General Association of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, leading them away in handcuffs and black hoods, for publishing a picture book that police said could encourage seditious tendencies in children.
A Hong Kong court on the same day was denying bail to four editorial staff members of the newspaper Apple Daily, which itself has been forced to close. Its owner, Jimmy Lai, 73, also remains in prison.
This is part of Beijing’s blitzkrieg against freedom in Hong Kong, a former British colony for which the Communists had pledged self-rule in an international treaty a quarter-century ago. The rule of law, which had been the pride of the city-state, now exists in Hong Kong to the same extent it does in mainland China.
Which is to say, not at all.
On Tuesday, three disability rights advocates in the mainland city of Changsha were sentenced to prison for unknown terms in secret trials, with no access to lawyers, after having been arrested two years ago on suspicion of “subverting state power.” I mention this not because I expect you have heard of Cheng Yuan, Liu Dazhi or Wu Gejianxiong, or because their case is extraordinary — but because their case is so unsurprising. In any given week in China, innocent people are being interrogated, tortured and sentenced because they criticized some official, or worshiped in some unapproved way — or for reasons that are never explained.
After all, Wang Bingzhang, 73, also was sentenced in a secret, one-day trial — and he remains in prison 19 years later. The founder of an overseas democracy movement, Wang was abducted by Chinese secret police from Vietnam in 2002. He may be the longest-serving political prisoner in China, but in other ways his case, too, is far from extraordinary.
Are these issues that might prove “difficult to be understood” for Toyota or its customers?
The benefit of the car company’s change of heart in Tokyo is that we now know corporations can make political decisions, and quickly.
We now know, too, that the athletes who have trained so diligently, for so long, could have their moment in Beijing, as they are getting their chance in Tokyo — with or without Toyota putting its corporate stamp of approval on an increasingly suffocating dictatorship.