Human rights advocates have failed in a years-long effort to get companies to cut their support for the Games that begin next month
By Jeanne Whalen
Late last year, human rights activists stood outside the White House for 57 hours urging the United States to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. A few weeks later, they got their wish. Convincing the corporate world to follow suit has proved much harder.
For two years, campaigners representing the people of Hong Kong, Tibet and China’s Xinjiang region have been pushing U.S. and Western companies to either drop their sponsorships and broadcasts of the Games, which start Feb. 4, or to publicly condemn the repression Chinese authorities have carried out in those regions.
But activists say the risk of offending the rulers of the world’s second-biggest economy has caused the companies to stick with their deals and stay mum on China’s human rights abuses, despite a U.S. State Department determination that China is committing genocide against the Uyghur minority.
“All they can think about is the money,” said Zumretay Arkin, program manager at the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group. “I feel like everyone now wants to put their heads in the sand and wait for the Games to end.”
Over 200 groups worldwide have taken part in the effort, writing letters, organizing petitions and staging protests outside corporate offices to highlight the repression Chinese authorities have carried out against Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers.
Allianz, the German financial services company, was the only corporation that agreed to meet with activists, Arkin said, hosting a discussion in Munich in October with World Uyghur Congress campaigners and Kelbinur Sidik, a former teacher in the Xinjiang region who spoke about witnessing the conditions inside China’s detention camps for Uyghurs.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Sidik, who now lives in the Netherlands, said Chinese authorities in 2017 forced her to give Mandarin lessons at the camps, where she saw detainees wearing shackles and numbered uniforms. They slept on cement floors in cramped cells and were forced to learn patriotic songs about the Chinese Communist Party, she said.
The Allianz officials seemed moved by her testimony and said they would discuss it with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Sidik and Arkin said.
A spokeswoman for Allianz declined to say whether the company raised the issue with the IOC, but Allianz remains one of a dozen global Olympics sponsors. The company’s support is “centered on athletes from around the world” and “is long-term in nature,” spanning Games in Tokyo, Paris, Milan and Los Angeles, the spokeswoman said.
Many sponsors count China as one of their biggest markets; for U.S. semiconductor giant Intel, China represents 26 percent of its revenue, more than any other country. And Beijing has been quick to punish Western companies that criticize the authorities or even obliquely refer to topics China considers sensitive.
Intel drew China’s ire last month when it sent a letter to its suppliers asking them to avoid sourcing goods or services from the Xinjiang region. The request coincided with a new U.S. law banning many imports from Xinjiang over concerns that Chinese authorities are coercing Uyghurs into forced labor.
Intel quickly became the target of fury from Chinese state media and Internet users, prompting the company to apologize.
Intel declined to comment on the criticism surrounding its Olympics sponsorship, though its senior leadership has publicly recognized the human rights concerns. Asked at a congressional hearing last year whether he agreed with a U.S. government assessment that China is committing genocide against Uyghurs, Intel general counsel Steve Rodgers said: “I’ve read the State Department report, I’ve studied it and I believe its conclusions.”
Other Olympic sponsors largely skirted questions from The Post about China’s human rights record.
Coca-Cola declined to comment, directing The Post to an executive’s testimony at the same congressional hearing last year, which detailed Coca-Cola’s commitment to human rights but did not mention China.
Airbnb said its nine-year deal with the IOC, which began in 2020, is not “organized around individual Games, but rather, a long-term partnership organized around the economic empowerment of individual athletes.”
Procter & Gamble declined to comment. Visa and Bridgestone didn’t respond to requests for comment. Swiss watch brand Omega said it has been the “official timekeeper” at the Olympics since 1932 and has a policy “not to get involved in certain political issues because it would not advance the cause of sport in which our commitment lies.”
Some companies have publicly stressed that they signed multiyear deals with the IOC before future host cities were chosen, and that they view their sponsorships as endorsing a noble athletic tradition, not individual host countries.
The sponsorship and broadcasting dollars at stake fund much of the Olympic movement. A dozen top corporate sponsors paid the IOC a total of $1 billion to sponsor the Winter and Summer Olympics in 2014 and 2016, according to the IOC’s most recent figures. Those companies probably spent an additional $1 billion or more on advertising, hospitality and other expenses tied to the Games, according to Lee Berke, a consultant at LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Broadcasters around the world paid the IOC an even bigger sum — a total of $4.2 billion — for the rights to air those Games. The IOC says it distributes much of the revenue it collects to more than 200 National Olympic Committees to support their domestic athletics programs, and to Olympics host countries to defray their costs.
When the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics — a more severe rebuff that prevented U.S. athletes from competing — NBC followed suit and canceled its broadcast plans.
This time around, U.S. diplomats won’t attend but U.S. athletes will compete, and NBC will carry on with its broadcast. In 2014, NBC agreed to pay the IOC $7.75 billion for the U.S. broadcast rights for all Games between 2021 and 2032. The IOC named Beijing the 2022 host city in 2015.
NBC has reported strong advertising sales for the Beijing Games, saying in the fall that it was at “near sellout levels.” Asked whether the network plans to cover human rights issues in its Olympics broadcasts, a spokesman said: “NBCUniversal has a long history of defending and promoting press freedom, covering stories in the public interest related to China, and of covering the Olympic Games. We have no intention of departing from that long history.”
In an email, the IOC said the Olympics are “the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition.”
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the organization added.
China critics in Congress have sought to punish the IOC and its corporate sponsors for supporting the Beijing Games. Last year, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) proposed several versions of a measure that would have barred IOC sponsors from supplying the federal government, including an amendment to a defense bill that would have blocked sponsors from selling their products on U.S. military bases.
Procter & Gamble and other companies lobbied against Waltz’s efforts. In an email to the office of one House member in August, P & G lobbyist Sean Mulvaney noted that at the time the U.S. government was still debating possible actions, including a diplomatic boycott.
“This amendment would punish P & G and the Olympic movement, including U.S. athletes, getting ahead of other policy tools on which the Congress and the Executive are deliberating,” he wrote, according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Post. The amendment to the defense bill failed in a 22-to-36 vote.
Mulvaney referred questions to a P & G spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the lobbying or on China’s human rights record.
Members of Congress have stepped up the pressure as the Games approach. In a letter Thursday to Olympic sponsors, two dozen House members chided Coca-Cola and other U.S. companies for engaging in “a disingenuous and hyperbolic debate” over voting rights in Georgia while staying silent on Chinese repression.
Beijing’s assault on democracy and free speech in Hong Kong — previously a bastion of civil liberties — has been on full display for several years. Authorities have jailed pro-democracy activists over peaceful protests, arrested journalists and opposition politicians, and forced media outlets to close.
There is also little international doubt about conditions in Xinjiang, where human rights groups estimate that the authorities have detained as many as a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in camps and detention centers for periods ranging from weeks to years, aiming to forcibly assimilate them to Han Chinese culture. Britain has pressed China to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the region, while the European Parliament has condemned China for using forced labor in Xinjiang.
Canada, Britain and Australia have joined the United States in diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Games, citing human rights concerns.
In an interview, Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur rights activist in Washington, said she has seen this repression up close. Her father, Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist who criticized Chinese policies in Xinjiang, was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison for allegedly advocating separatism — a verdict decried by the U.S. government and human rights groups, which called him a respected academic and urged his release.
Family members in China haven’t been able to visit Tohti since 2017 and aren’t certain where he’s being held, his daughter said. “Has he been transferred or is he alive? No one knows,” she said.
The World Uyghur Congress began urging Olympics sponsors to abandon the Beijing Games two years ago but has received little response, according to Arkin, an ethnic Uyghur born in Xinjiang who emigrated to Canada as a child.
“Holding the Olympics in Beijing in 2022 not only supports the Chinese Government’s actions financially but it also implicates the IOC and its partners in the CCP’s crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region,” the group wrote in one letter.
Some campaigners have taken to the streets to get their message out. Activists from the Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong communities protested outside NBC offices in New York, Washington, Boston and Los Angeles this month, attempting to deliver letters urging the network to scrap its broadcast plans.
“Why are they putting themselves in a position where they are tying their increased profits and viewership with positive views toward a genocidal regime?” asked Pema Doma, an activist with Students for a Free Tibet. NBC didn’t respond to questions about the protests.
Hong Konger Christopher Choi, a nursing student in Boston who camped outside the White House during last year’s protest, has now begun handing out leaflets in Harvard Square, asking the general public not to watch the Games.
“Lower viewership would be an indication that these atrocities and human rights abuses are not okay, and it’s not okay for the Olympics to be hosted in China,” Choi said.