Why won’t the United States and its allies confront China over its genocide of the Uyghurs? Everyone’s afraid of Beijing, and nobody wants to cost multinational corporations a lot of money. That’s the most obvious explanation for the willingness of the civilized world to simultaneously acknowledge that the most egregious violations of human rights—involving murder, rape, forced sterilization, enslavement and forced population transfers away from their homes—that is going on inside China while also doing nothing about it.
To his credit, during a four-hour virtual summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden mentioned the question of human-rights abuses in Xinjiang province where the Uyghurs are being oppressed, as well as China’s ongoing criminal behavior in Tibet and its suppression of the democracy in Hong Kong, which it had pledged to respect when the British gave up their former colony. But his gentle reminders of these atrocities while trying to smooth over relations with the man he referred to as his “old friend” (the sort of obsequious gesture towards a hostile regime that was always harshly criticized when former President Donald Trump did it), stopped short of indicating that he was actually going to treat genocide as something worth more than a rhetorical gesture.
Indeed, that’s the best Biden is willing to do even though the West has a perfect opportunity to exert some leverage over China in the next few months.
Beijing will be hosting the Winter Olympics in February, and the Communist Party regime is treating the extravaganza as yet another opportunity to assert both its dominance and legitimacy on the world stage. The threat of a boycott of the show by the United States with or without its allies joining in the effort could have forced China to make at least some gestures towards ending its crimes against the Uyghurs—not to mention standing down from its threats to Taiwan, whose air space it has overflown as part of an intimidation campaign.
But rather than taking a lesson from the mistake Western nations made in 1936 when they allowed Adolf Hitler to put on a show that glorified the Nazi regime during the Berlin Olympics, strengthening its prestige and legitimacy, few want to rock the Olympic boat.
While most of the excuses for failing to take a stand on the Olympics is put down to a desire to not punish athletes by taking away the only showcase that most of the sports involved in the quadrennial event ever get, the real reason is money. The biggest corporate sponsors of the games are not only heavily invested in the two-week television spectacle, they also don’t want anything to disrupt the business they do in China which, according to Bloomberg, amounts to about $110 billion.
Not wishing to be seen as violating his administration’s claim that it is prioritizing human rights, Biden’s foreign-policy team is floating a proposal in which it will conduct a “diplomatic boycott” of the games rather than an actual one. That means that American government officials won’t be there, though everyone else—the athletes, the television networks and their sponsors—will be there in full force. That is a meaningless gesture involving people who won’t be missed; it’s actually worse than doing nothing.
There are those who object to what they claim is injecting politics into sports. But this is a specious argument. The Olympics, with its flag-waving and anthem playing, is already awash in politics and always has been. Every dictatorship that has hosted an Olympics has gained political leverage from a show intended to make them look good, even if there were some hiccups along the way.
More to the point, authoritarian regimes like China never hesitate to use sports to bully their own people and others.
An example of that came up this week when Beijing disappeared Peng Shuai, one of China’s leading tennis players. Once a top singles player and now one of the world’s best at doubles (a Wimbledon champion), she made the mistake of speaking out publicly about being sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China and a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. Instead of her #MeToo accusation putting the regime on the spot, she is the one in trouble. Shortly after she posted her statement on a Chinese social-media platform, it was deleted, and Peng vanished from sight. Chinese state media then published an email purportedly from Peng denying the allegations and calling on international tennis officials to stop meddling. That Peng, a major sports celebrity in China, is under arrest and being coerced to disavow what happened to her is not in doubt.
China has used the financial clout that its enormous market offers to sports leagues like the National Basketball Association, which has been intimidated into silence on oppression there even as some courageous figures try to speak out against what’s happening to the Uyghurs.
So leaving aside the question of acquiescing to genocide, this incident makes it obvious that in China, not even privileged sports figures are exempt from the kind of crude oppression that is dealt out to ordinary people there. The idea that it should be allowed to hold an international sports event like the Olympics while it holds an athlete hostage in order to cover up a government sex scandal is outrageous. Some in the tennis world have spoken out, but it’s not clear that any of them will boycott Chinese tournaments or their own lucrative business deals with that country until Peng is released and free to speak about what happened to her. Nor does it appear that anyone involved in the Winter Olympics is interested enough to treat it as worthy of more than a token protest.
If the Biden administration, corporate America and the sports world are too venal and craven to challenge China, then it is up to those groups and organizations that have always treated human rights as a priority to do what they can to ensure that the Uyghurs, Peng Shuai or what may be millions incarcerated in the laogai—the Chinese version of the Soviet Union’s gulags—aren’t considered less important than a competition staged for global TV.
Among those who should be speaking out the loudest is the Jewish community.
The release this month of a report from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum about the genocide against the Uyghurs ought to be enough to convince all the major movements and organizations that, like their concerted efforts to bring attention to atrocities being committed in Darfur 15 years ago, that the issue is still a Jewish priority. In this case, mere resolutions, like the one passed in April by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are not enough.
The genocide of the Uyghurs hasn’t attracted the same kind of activist fervor from the Jewish community that Darfur did. By comparison, that protest was cost-free. There were no major donors who did business in Sudan to exert pressure for silence as there are with China. Too many people profit from commerce with the Chinese regime or would like to do so.
They aren’t the only ones being silent. The indifference towards the Uyghurs, who are Muslim, on the part of Muslim nations and even the Muslim-American community is staggering.
And so, it remains incumbent on those who claim to speak about matters of conscience to treat what is happening in Western China as not just another sad situation in the world. The Olympics have provided an opportunity to expose Beijing’s crimes. If instead, the fun and games continue with little in the way of effective protest, all the talk from politicians and others about being guided by the Holocaust remembrance motto of “Never Again” will have been proven to be meaningless.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.