The accusations by protesters from Turkey to Austria to the UK include the oppression of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region
A group of Tibetan protesters in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, demonstrate against alleged violations of human rights in China (Photo: Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
By Jak Hutchcraft
February 1, 2022
Protests have erupted all over the world in the build-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics with activists calling for boycotts due to serious accusations of human rights abuses in China.
The accusations by protesters from Turkey to Austria to the UK include the oppression of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region – targeting over 12 million people, many of whom are in concentration camps where they face systematic rape, torture and abuse.
The uncertain situation of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared after accusing former top Communist Party official of sexual assault, has also led to widespread concerns – although she has appeared on video since. Then there is the dismantling of Hong Kong’s free press and civil society. The view among activists is: to participate in Beijing 2022 is to be complicit in these crimes against human rights.
China denies all the allegations and has said UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet can visit Xinjiang in the first half of the year after the Olympics.
In October, three protesters broke into the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece. They waved a Tibetan flag and a homemade banner that read “NO GENOCIDE GAMES”, with one shouting: “How can Beijing be allowed to hold the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uyghurs?” The trio were pinned to the floor by Greek police until the ceremony was over. They were arrested and spent three days in a police cell in the nearby city of Pyrgos, before being released to await trial.
One of them was Briton Jason Leith, who works for the NGO Free Tibet. He told i from his home in London: “The Olympic flame is meant to stand for unity, freedom and solidarity, but how does that line up with anything that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] have been carrying out?”
“The genocide, the systematic eradication of freedoms, culture and the way of life of Tibetans. It’s unbelievable.”
The three were arrested for disrupting a public event, but their charge was increased to “destruction of a historic monument”, which could mean a two- to five-year prison sentence in Greece. “The charges are baseless,” said Mr Leith. “There was never any attempt to destroy any monument.
“We were there with banners in our hands, so we didn’t even have our hands free. We got to a certain point and we stopped before we got to any of the significant ancient monuments.”
Protester Jason Leith, from London, said the Olympics should stand for unity (Photo: Supplied)
China is the only country in history to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, the former back in 2008. “In 2008, we saw China promise the world that this situation would get better,” Tibetan activist Chemi Lhamo, another of the trio arrested, told i from her home in Toronto, Canada.
“Over a decade later and nothing has changed for the better. We actually have the statistics and facts to prove that it has only gotten worse.”
Last year, US organisation Freedom House ranked Tibet as the joint-worst place in the world for civil rights and political freedoms. This makes it the “least free” country on earth, alongside Syria. Ms Lhamo, who has been politically active since she was 13, was born in exile as a stateless refugee in India. “Any Tibetan born after 1959 is born an activist, because our very existence is resistance. The Chinese government is trying to eliminate our identity at its core,” she said.
Countries around the world – including the US, Estonia, Denmark and the UK – have “diplomatically boycotted” the Olympics because of accusations of abuses, meaning they are not sending their heads of state or ministers to the games. Last year the US imposed sanctions and visa restrictions on a growing list of Chinese government officials for the same reason. However, their national athletes are still attending and competing.
“Diplomatic boycotts do make sense, they are the right steps in the right direction, however it’s just not enough,” said Ms Lhamo.
The Chinese government reportedly recently gave $210,000 to western PR companies and influencers to spread positive stories about the country during the Olympics.
“The charge we have now is something that terrorists are charged with. We were just there for a peaceful protest. We were there to send a message to the world, and that’s what we did,” Ms Lhamo added.
Fern MacDougal, the third activist and a PhD student, told i from her home in California: “With all the focus on the symbolic handover to China, we thought this was the most appropriate time to make a noise and insert the voice of peoples that are really being oppressed under China’s thumb right now into that moment.
“We wanted to draw attention to the irony there and the inappropriateness of giving China the ability to host the Olympics, which is supposed to be a symbol of international solidarity and peace.”
In 2017, China revealed a plan to become the world’s biggest superpower within 30 years. “They are trying to dominate. It is pretty clear in which direction they’re heading,” Ms Lhamo said. “Soon after the Olympics you’ll hear about the Belt and Road initiative, many local beaches in Jamaica are owned by China, if you go to Sri Lanka all the sea ports are already bought up by China. They are in the works of building a new island in this area so that they have more navy power. They are building in all of these different directions. It’s now the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Hong Kongers, but, to whoever is reading this, soon enough it will be you.”
The three protesters are due in court on Thursday, when an international day of action is planned, including demonstrations in London and outside the IOC in Switzerland. “I am feeling grateful for the support of the world,” said Ms Lhamo. “When I was able to scream and my voice was being heard, I don’t usually think I have a loud voice, but at the time of the protest it felt like that voice that came from within was representing and amplifying the voices of all oppressed peoples everywhere.”