Boycotts work — among other things, a boycott helped end apartheid. But a “diplomatic” boycott is not a real boycott; it’s just a timorous, droning half-measure suggested by wishful thinkers not yet ready to recognize that the 2022 Winter Games will be the most dangerous Olympics since Berlin in 1936. You have to work on Capitol Hill to think that the word “diplomatic” before “boycott” will do anything but put people to sleep.
When the International Olympic Committee, that hundred-year handmaiden to racist totalitarians, awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing back in 2001, the standard view was that commerce would liberalize China. This was a horrible misreading and mistake. Before the Games ever began, the Chinese government reneged on its human rights promises and the invitees found themselves gagged and elbow-twisted, forced into complicity with censorship, torture and forced labor. The Olympics became a pageant for the party-state.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Anyone who thinks the China party-state’s intentions have grown any kinder should listen to Xi’s words when he spoke on July 1 at the party’s centenary. “The people of China are not only good at destroying the old world but also good at building a new one,” he said.
And then there was this: Resolving the Taiwan question and bringing about China’s “reunification” is a “historic mission” of the Community Party of China.
But sure. Give Xi more free prizes. More prestige and propaganda victories, and evidence that the West is too weak to oppose him.
“The historical record shows that these Games don’t chasten the authoritarians; they motivate them further,” says David Feith, a former deputy assistant secretary of state of East Asian and Pacific affairs.
It’s worth reviewing that record. On Sept. 15, 1935, Adolf Hitler announced the Nuremberg Laws, breaking his pledge that the Berlin Games would be free from Jewish persecution. The U.S. consul general in Berlin at the time, George Messersmith, recognized the importance of the Olympics to Hitler in consolidating his power and establishing the globe’s lack of opposition to his agenda. He urged the State Department to boycott, warning: “The holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 has become the symbol of the conquest of the world by National Socialist Doctrine.” An American boycott would draw a line, Messersmith wrote, and be “one of the most serious blows which National Socialist prestige could suffer within an awakening Germany.” What’s more, “America should prevent its athletes from being used by another government as a political instrument.”
Instead, American Olympics leader Avery Brundage worked to foil the boycott movement and backed the Nazis, of course. “Certain Jews must understand that they cannot use these Games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis,” Brundage said.
There is no hope, zero, that today’s Thomas Bach-led IOC will behave any differently than Brundage did with Hitler when it comes to opposing forced labor and heading off industrial-scale genocide. Bach’s IOC cares about one thing only: its revenue. The United States can and should lead a campaign of pressure on the IOC to move the 2022 Winter Games from Beijing to some place like Canada — postponing them if necessary — enlisting every American ally and sponsor in the effort, leaving the IOC with no choice if it wants to get paid.
The Biden administration should lean on NBC and Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa, Airbnb and Procter & Gamble, hard. Are these American companies — or have they been so coercively leveraged by “the anaconda in the chandelier,” to use author Perry Link’s freezing phrase for how the Chinese party-state controls all who engage it commercially, that they are willing to undermine their own country?
When you invite a big snake into your own ceiling, it takes over the house. It’s not a stretch to say some of these companies’ dealings and data-shares with China may actively damage the security of Americans. Chinese security thugs have hacked and stolen. They’ve started showing up on doorsteps from San Diego to New Jersey. Sponsoring a Beijing Olympics would not just reward China for the crimes against humanity taking place in remote Xinjiang but also for incursions against you and me at home.
Olympic boycotts are a highly disputed topic, only because the argument starts from the wrong end. What matters is not the behavior of the boycotted regime. What matters is the firm behavior of the boycotters. The United States’ refusal to go to Moscow in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a success in that it organized more than 60 other countries to also shun Moscow, helped lead a global hardening of sentiment against that regime, signaled a global blockade to aggression and set up the firm confrontations of the Reagan years.
You don’t want to live in a world of growing China party-state encroachments. You really don’t. It’s a world where pregnancy tests taken by millions of women globally have wound up in the hands of the Chinese military and where our National Security Council warns that China’s record of amassing biodata for nefarious purposes, from surveillance to targeting populations, makes it a multipronged threat to Americans’ security. It’s a world in which the party-state will seize any of your private information it deems related to its own security. It’s a world in which a Chinese official threatens Australia to “correct its mistakes” or face the consequences, and Canadian business executives are seized and held in Chinese prisons for two years without evidence, simply as political retaliation.
Failure to remove the Games from Beijing would not merely result in a status quo. It would seriously embolden a vicious aggressor. “If you have an interest in giving China less coercive commercial power, fewer propaganda channels and less confidence that it can do repressive things at home and aggressive things overseas without being checked by outside powers, clearly holding the Olympics in China cuts against all those interests,” Feith says. Take them away.