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Facing Olympic boycott calls, China presses U.S. companies to speak up in its defense

Peng Shuai of China serves against Monica Niculescu of Romania during their women's singles match of the 2017 China Open in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)

China is pressuring American companies to push back against campaigns to boycott the Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid heightened scrutiny of human rights abuses in the country.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng on Tuesday told a video conference of U.S. business executives to “make a positive contribution” to the Games, which open in February.

“Boycotting the Olympics for political reasons harms the interests of athletes, violates the shared ideals and aspirations of the international society, and is unpopular,” Xie said. President Biden has confirmed that the White House is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

Pressure over China’s human rights abuses mounts ahead of Beijing Olympics

The outreach by China comes amid signs that foreign businesses, long compliant with official demands for quiescence, are waking up to the reputational damage from staying silent at a time of intensifying repression. A global furor over the treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a retired top Chinese leader of sexual abuse crystallized concerns over censorship and the silencing of women by powerful officials, bolstering calls for a Games boycott.

Attended by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the U.S.-China Business Council, the event was part of efforts by Beijing to prevent the relationship from deteriorating beyond what is already its worst point since diplomatic ties were established.

Xie declared that a virtual summit last month between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had sent a strong signal that the relationship needed to be mended. But Beijing has continued to angrily rebuff any suggestion of wrongdoing over military aggression toward Taiwan, a crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong and mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

“Everyone must be clear that Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet are core interests that touch upon China’s sovereignty and secure development,” Xie told the American executives. “China does not have any room to compromise.”

The call for multinationals to support Beijing’s position comes as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced that it was suspending tournaments in China because of concerns about Peng’s safety.

On Nov. 2, Peng accused retired Chinese Communist Party vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into a sexual relationship. The post was censored within about half an hour, and Peng then disappeared for two weeks.

After an international outcry, she reemerged in carefully curated posts from Chinese state media and spoke via video with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. But these reports were not shared on China’s heavily censored social media, where Peng remains silent.

In China, escalating cost of business sends some companies to the exits

The appearances have not satisfied human rights groups, which see parallels between Peng’s case and those of dozens of activists and dissidents previously forced to confess and recant on state media.

In response to the WTA’s decision, the Chinese Tennis Association on Thursday expressed “indignation” at what it labeled a “unilateral action” based on “fictitious information.”

“It not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself, but also will severely harm the female tennis players’ fair opportunities to compete, then damage the interest of the entire sport of tennis,” the association said, without naming Peng or mentioning her post.

On Dec. 1, the Women’s Tennis Association said it is suspending all tournaments in China and Hong Kong amid concerns over Peng’s safety and well-being. (Video: Reuters)

The statement was delivered only in English to state media outlets responsible for pushing Beijing’s messaging to the outside world and was not posted on the association’s website or in Chinese media. That followed a pattern of Chinese responses about Peng’s disappearance made solely for external consumption.

Within China, there has been little discussion of the WTA’s decision. Its official account on Chinese microblog Weibo showed no mention of the tournament suspension and the platform had blocked users from making or viewing comments below recent posts, a common form of soft censorship.

Human rights groups and sports icons heralded the WTA’s decision not to back down under Beijing’s pressure. Former world tennis champion and social activist Billie Jean King tweeted, “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.”

As scrutiny of abuses in China mounts, multinational companies and international institutions have repeatedly found themselves facing pressure from both concerned human rights activists and Chinese officials.

Combined with strict laws on data protection and the lingering China-U.S. trade dispute, that challenging political environment is forcing a rethink by companies that once saw China’s market as irresistible.

Business executives that remain committed to China, however, continue to defend the Chinese leadership and backtrack rapidly if they offend Beijing, intentionally or otherwise.

A day after JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon joked last week that the company might outlast the Chinese Communist Party, adding “I can’t say that in China,” he released a statement saying he regretted the remarks, conceding “it’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people.”

Speaking to CNBC this week, Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio responded to a question about human rights issues in China by saying that he “can’t be an expert in all of those particular dynamics.”

Dalio, a long time believer that China sits at the center of global economic growth, added that the Chinese leadership behaved like a “strict parent” toward Chinese people. “The notion of whatever they are doing in terms of calling in people and then behaving in a certain way, that’s their approach,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bridgewater Associates has raised the equivalent of $1.25 billion for its third investment fund in China.

Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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