The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Beijing Olympics has become an exercise in genocide denial

Chamath Palihapitiya, part-owner of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, has been criticized for saying that "nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs" in China. (Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)
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It’s one thing to stay silent about mass atrocities. It’s quite another thing to actively help the oppressors whitewash their crimes. The Winter Olympics beginning next month in China, where the government is committing a genocide against Uyghur Muslims, is turning all of its partners into atrocity deniers before our eyes.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which consistently stands with the Chinese government against anyone who speaks up against its human rights violations, insists that the Games are strictly apolitical. But that has never really been the case. Before the 1936 Berlin Games, African American runner Jesse Owens spoke out against the persecution of minorities inside Germany (while he still faced personal racial discrimination at home). By winning four gold medals, he was later said to have “single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.”

This year, the Olympics are again being held in a country where mass atrocities against minorities are ongoing. Elisha Wiesel, the son of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, told me that every person and organization connected to the Beijing Olympics has a responsibility to avoid complicity in Beijing’s efforts to cover up its barbaric treatment of the Uyghurs. He will echo this call in a speech at a United Nations Holocaust remembrance event next week.

“We must all speak out,” Wiesel told me. “I hope that the corporations which are broadcasting and sponsoring these Olympics — more specifically, the men and women of conscience who work at these corporations — will do whatever they can to back away from the credibility they bestow on a regime whose actions deserve global condemnation.”

Tragically, this week saw several examples of prominent figures and institutions doing exactly the opposite. On Monday, tech billionaire and part-owner of the Golden State Warriors basketball team Chamath Palihapitiya casually asserted during a human rights discussion on his podcast that “nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.” He dismissed any claims to the contrary as “virtue-signaling” and described public calls for support of the Uyghurs as “deplorable.”

Beijing has been working hard to pressure any foreigners to shut up about human rights when talking about the Olympics. When it comes to Olympic athletes, that includes direct threats. In a news conference this week, a top Beijing Organizing Committee official said, “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

On Tuesday, the nonprofit research organization Citizen Lab released a report revealing that the Chinese government has mandated that all Olympics athletes download a “health monitoring” app that is riddled with security vulnerabilities that puts their data and conversations at risk. What’s worse, the app allows users to report “politically sensitive” content; it even includes a “censorship keyword list.” This means any athletes, coaches or journalists who mention Xinjiang or the Uyghurs while in Beijing could find themselves in hot water.

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The IOC predictably came to Beijing’s defense. This follows the IOC’s efforts to produce videos used in Chinese propaganda to address concerns about missing tennis star Peng Shuai and the IOC’s refusal to even meet with groups raising awareness about Uyghur forced labor. Bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill with the IOC’s efforts to help the Chinese government shut down dissent — rather than hold Beijing to account — has reached a boiling point.

A group of eight U.S. House members led by Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) released a statement on Thursday calling on the IOC to condemn the Chinese officials’ remarks and explain how it plans to protect foreign athletes and journalists if Chinese authorities try to make good on their threats. Reps. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) introduced a bill this week that would remove the IOC’s federal tax-exempt status.

“The corporate partners for the 2022 Genocide Olympics should be ashamed to be associated with the IOC and the [Chinese Communist Party’s] propaganda ploy,” Waltz said.

So far, the corporations don’t seem ashamed at all. Google and Apple put the Chinese government’s flawed app in their app stores without disclosing the risks to users. The Warriors organization distanced itself from Palihapitiya’s comments, but neither he nor the team mentioned the Uyghurs in their subsequent statements. By both action and inaction, they are helping the Chinese government cover up its repression, mainly because it is in their financial interest, said Michael Sobolik, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

“When your bottom line depends on a genocidal regime, you become a de facto apologist for a genocide,” he said. “The only difference between Chamath, the IOC and companies like Apple is the degree of how brazen they are.”

It may seem expedient now to claim “nobody cares” about the Uyghur genocide. But the actions of the athletes, companies and international organizations at the 2022 Beijing Olympics will be remembered for generations, as they were after the Games in 1936. Each of them — and each of us — must think hard about which side of history we want to be on.

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