The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China controls the IOC and Olympic sponsors the way it governs its citizens: Through fear

A guest uses a cellphone to take pictures of the Olympic logo during a media reception event this month by the Beijing 2022 organizing committee. (Wu Hong/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Noted East Asia scholar Perry Link once called China “the anaconda in the chandelier.” You wouldn’t knowingly let a snake into your home. Yet it got in. Or, rather, Procter & Gamble and other Olympic sponsors let it in. They unlocked your door and allowed it to crawl inside, and now you better check what’s coiled around your phone or that pair of shoes in your closet.

The thought of that snake freezes you, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the point. This is how China insidiously exports its tyranny. And it’s why the West should either pry the 2022 Winter Games away from Beijing or boycott.

The anaconda in the chandelier is the most apt description ever written of how Beijing’s leaders insinuate their power on others. The repressions are subtle at first. You make a small but compromised agreement in the name of commerce or diplomacy or Olympic “engagement” with China. Once in the room, you realize that massive, suffocating constrictor of a snake is coiled overhead, ready to choke the life out of you or your business if you offend. People consequently move very, very gingerly.

“Everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite ‘naturally,’ ” Link wrote.

It used to be that China policed or coerced only its own citizens, induced them into self-censorship and paralysis with this sense of latent but chilling threat. But lately the fat, vague menace somehow has frozen the entire Western world. Everyone engaged with Beijing seems afraid to move a muscle — stifled, unfree, hunch-shouldered and inert — for fear that the snake might move. The IOC and its corporate partners are silent and immobilized to the point of abetting slavery, torture and rape in the Uyghur camps of Xinjiang. They’re facilitating a dangerously aggressive encroachment of the anaconda to our own doorsteps.

It’s time to break that grip.

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Beijing’s leaders want to police you, whether you know it or not. President Xi Jinping is on a concerted campaign to transnationalize his autocracy, to undermine the United Nations human rights code and enforce a worldwide gag order over his murderous forced-labor club-whacking despotism, which he very much would like to take into Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. You want to scare the hell out of yourself? Read his 2017 remarks about how China should use Western fractures to go about “reforming and developing the global governance system.” That’s what he’s into — and to whom Olympic sponsors and dozens of other American companies are funneling billions.

This is how the anaconda gets into your light fixture: Major Olympic partner Procter & Gamble, the second-largest advertiser in the world, acts nice for the folks at home during the Winter Games with ad sloganeering such as the “Like A Girl” campaign. Meanwhile, it’s wordless on the subject of Uyghur rapes and forced sterilizations while working with the Chinese on something called “device fingerprinting,” which can evade Apple’s privacy tools to gather your iPhone user data and track you without your assent for the sake of targeting you with ads — and God knows what else.

Here is how the anaconda gets into your phone. To gain entry to the China market in 2014, LinkedIn had to integrate censorship criteria into its messaging. Then there is the WeChat messaging app, which made all of its contents accessible to Chinese authorities.

Here is how far the anaconda has slithered into your good old-fashioned American goods. It turns out that Coca-Cola, another Olympic sponsor, sources sugar from Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted and possibly slaughtered. American companies such as Coke disingenuously claim they don’t know whether they are benefiting from forced labor, because no one can audit factories there — any human rights observers who try to visit Xinjiang’s “vocational training centers” get detained.

Despite its professed blank ignorance, Coca-Cola was strangely motivated to try to water down the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Congress’s bill that would keep American companies from funding torture and slavery whether wittingly or not.

Here’s how the anaconda gets into your T-shirt. The IOC grants a textile contract to a company in the cotton-rich Uyghur region. So the very fabric of Olympic uniforms may be interwoven with modern slaving.

When IOC President Thomas Bach was confronted in March about the possibility that it is colluding in torture and slave-driving, you could almost feel his eye on the anaconda.

“We are not a super world government where the IOC could solve or even address issues” that the United Nations has trouble grappling with, he said. He added bravely, “This is the remit of politics.”

Let’s wave away that fog of foul-smelling coward’s breath to clarify something: Slavery, torture and gagging are not politics. They are atrocities, villainies, crimes.

The IOC long ago left behind mere amorality for active evil. It has become the partner of despots seeking prestige and money laundering on billion-dollar building projects for their cronies. But it’s important to recognize that the Beijing Games are more than the ordinary authoritarian “sportswashing.” Beijing, according to an Amnesty International 2020 study, “is definitely the most influential and assertive illiberal actor currently (re)shaping international norms and standards” around human rights.

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It’s said that Olympic boycotts don’t work. Condoleezza Rice went so far as to call Jimmy Carter’s 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games a “feckless” act that did nothing to alter Soviet behavior in Afghanistan and harmed only the athletes. But that view of a boycott takes into account only one side of the equation: the behavior of the host.

What we need to change is our own behavior.

What do you do with an invasive constricting snake? You step the hell away from it, that’s what. You don’t send your most aspirational kids into its maw and ask them to shut up and just breathe shallowly for two weeks while they’re being squeezed by it. Isn’t that the most harmful thing we could possibly do to a Mikaela Shiffrin?

Nothing is going to change China’s behavior. But Western bloc countries and companies that dominate Olympic medal counts have more than enough time to force the IOC to withdraw from Beijing. They should break the IOC’s autocratic handshake and organize a replacement Winter Games in Canada. There would be nothing feckless about such an act. On the contrary, it would be an act of powerful reclamation and self-determination.

Will the Chinese government retaliate? Will the anaconda writhe? You bet. But companies doing business there have been under its constant threat anyway, while the world increasingly recoils at their toadyism. Breaking the Beijing grip is not merely a moral imperative. It’s a matter of powerful self-interest — and of commercial, political and personal self-defense.

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