The U.S. and nine other countries are carrying out a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics. It’s a symbolic gesture, but what obligation do regular people have to boycott by not tuning in?
By Jenny Singer
February 9, 2022
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
At the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing, figure skaters sharpen their blades and machine-made snow covers the giant slalom. On the other side of the country, the Chinese government is carrying out what the State Department has labeled a genocide against Uyghurs, a minority ethnic group.
Since 2017, over one million Uyghurs—a mostly Muslim group living in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China—have been forced into internment camps. They are detained on the basis of “everything from wearing a headscarf or sporting a long beard to having more than two children or traveling overseas for vacation,” the Washington Post reports. Survivors of the camps have reported acts of torture, rape, and forced sterilization. Though China claimed to have closed the camps, in 2020 a BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that the government had built “high-security camps—some capable of housing tens of thousands of people” in which to forcibly house Uyghurs. “Uyghurs are basically having their cultural identity destroyed over time,” Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), tells Glamour.
If you’re following the Olympics, you know that Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva already made history with her quad jump, and that Leslie Jones’ commentary isn’t being respected as the art form it is. Regular viewers don’t have the same visuals of forced labor, family separations, and life under surveillance in Xinjiang. But most people are connected to the region, which is responsible for the vast majority of cotton production in China.
“Even though we may never have met someone who is Uyghur, we may never have been to China, each of us owns a t-shirt that likely has cotton that comes from Xinjiang and was likely made by slave labor,” Naomi Kikoler, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said this week. “I don’t think we often talk about the level of proximity that we sometimes have to acts of potential genocide.”
In response to the treatment of Uyghurs, the U.S. and nine other countries are carrying out a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 winter Olympics. It’s a symbolic gesture—American athletes can compete, but diplomats won't attend the games. What obligation do regular people have to boycott by not tuning in? The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of athleticism, diplomacy, and the perseverance of dreams. But this year, it may feel like viewers are forced into an absurd position where watching speed skating means accidentally normalizing a genocidal regime.
“There’s a genocide taking place in the Uyghur region. There are crimes against humanity taking place in the country where the Olympics are taking place,” says Irwin. “I don’t think any individual should be supporting this by watching the games. I think if you’re watching you’re legitimizing what the Chinese government is doing.” This isn’t the first time moral questions over watching the Olympics have been raised in recent months. Ahead of the 2021 Olympic games—held in Tokyo during a COVID surge—Sasha Mudd, a professor of philosophy, referred to this situation as “tolerance complicity.” That is, not participating directly in a bad act, but also not calling it out. “We tolerate, normalize or even celebrate wrongdoing through taking pleasure in its results,” she wrote in the New York Times.
But before you come at people for cheering on Nathan Chen and Sara Hector, Irwin says there are other things to consider: “I think we have to step back and think—the only reason we’re calling on individuals and looking at athletes as potential sources of free expression to call out China for what it’s doing is because the International Olympic Committee has done nothing,” Irwin argues. “There has been no pressure put on the Chinese government at all when it comes to what they’re doing to Uhygurs.” He’s critical of corporate sponsors, too. Despite the U.S. labeling the treatment of Uyghurs a genocide, major corporations like Coca-Cola, Airbnb, and Procter & Gamble are Olympic sponsors this year.
What can we do?
Level one: “It sounds a bit cliche, but read about the situation, inform yourself,” says Irwin. Other easy steps: talk about it with your friends and family, bring it up on social media, seek out relationships with Uyghur communities in your state.
The next level of action: Contact your elected officials. The Uyghur Human Rights Project recommends asking your member of Congress to support or sponsor the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.
The next level: “If there’s something you can do to prevent the atrocities it’s that China does respond to the economic argument, says Irwin. “If there’s an economic reason to stop doing what they’re doing then that could be somewhere to press.” Students at The Catholic University of America have pushed their school to move towards divesting from any investment related to Xinjiang. Now students at other schools are calling for their own inquiries. “We’ve seen some momentum on this,” says Irwin.
If you’re a consumer, consider this. Captives are often released from the camps, but then forced to labor at factories for little or no money, the New York Times reported in 2018. In December 2021, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, to keep products manufactured in the Xinjiang region from entering the U.S. But the Times reported that before the act was passed, Nike and Coca Cola both lobbied to weaken it. The UHRP encourages consumers to hold brands accountable on social media and through petitions.
In 2021 French prosecutors, according to The New York Times, began investigating whether Inditex, the owner of Zara, as well as Uniqlo, and Sketchers use forced Uyghur labor. One easy step is to add a Google Chrome extension called the Uyghur Forced Labor Checker, which will warn you if the company you’re buying from might use Uyghur labor in its manufacturing.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.