Most calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics have focused on the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and mass atrocities, which linger morbidly over an international event meant to celebrate the human spirit. For most governments and corporations, though, that’s not enough reason to stay away.
Yet consider that the Olympics represents an unknowable health risk for the thousands of foreign citizens attending, who must rely on the Chinese government’s honesty about the public health situation there. Beijing’s record shows why skepticism is warranted.
In early August, Chinese state media reported an outbreak of the delta coronavirus variant that reached at least 17 provinces, but with only a few hundred total cases. Only about three weeks later, Chinese authorities reported that local cases were down to zero. Even with the Chinese government’s ability to enforce widespread testing and lockdowns, those numbers strain credulity, considering current information about how the delta variant has spread in other countries. Local outbreaks continued to pop up in different parts of China throughout September, all with suspiciously low case numbers.
“The small number of cases they have reported across such a large geographic area defies everything we know about the increased transmissibility of this variant,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) wrote in a letter last month to Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). “It is very likely that these case numbers are undercounted given China’s consistent attempts to downplay the severity of the virus within its borders.”
Low confidence in China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines is another problem. Several countries using the Chinese vaccines saw huge delta spikes this summer, but China won’t even share its clinical research trial data to reassure the international community. Gallagher asked Hirshland to detail plans for ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens attending the games, given this and other issues of transparency surrounding the pandemic in China.
“China’s refusal to be transparent with the world just months before the world’s athletes spend weeks in their country is unacceptable,” Gallagher said. “I am concerned that this will put American athletes at risk and may even contribute to spread in their own communities after they return home.”
In her response, Hirshland said the USOPC was in talks with the International Olympic Committee and Beijing organizers to build upon the work done before and during the Tokyo Olympics this past summer. The USOPC is confident that China’s “mitigation policies and protocols will be an effective base of protection for the athletes,” she wrote. There were several hundred positive cases of covid-19 at the Tokyo Games.
China’s actions during its last hosting of an international sports festival are another cause for concern. In October 2019, 9,000 athletes from over 100 countries attended the Military World Games in Wuhan — the same city where the coronavirus was first detected. Dozens of them later reported coming down with covid-like symptoms and severe illness, although few were ever tested for the virus. The Chinese government later acknowledged that covid-19 might have been spreading in Wuhan during that event, but claims it was brought to China from the United States. This is not how a responsible host concerned with the safety of international guests behaves.
China’s leaders are hoping that the widespread desire to keep the Olympics separate from politics will allow Beijing to continue to thumb its nose at both our values and our public health concerns. As a new report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) details, the Chinese government’s plan is to use the Olympics to bolster its international standing, tighten its domestic control and tout the “superiority of China’s socialist model.”
“Chinese strategic discourse on the Olympics underlines the stakes,” the report, written by FDD fellows Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, states. “And where the 2008 Olympics were described as auguring a new era of multipolarity, the 2022 Olympics are projected to mark the arrival of a China-led world order.”
Participation in the Beijing Olympics represents the greatest leverage the United States or any other country will have to press China to begin to respect international public health and the rights of its citizens. Absent that, boycotting is the right move strategically, morally and for the safety of our athletes and their communities.