Beijing will host the next Winter Olympics in February 2022. If, as observed by academics and the international press, the 2008 Summer Olympics was China’s “coming out party,” the 2022 Winter Olympics will serve as a “coming of age party.” In one of his first acts as commander-in-chief, President Joe Biden should spoil the celebration by threatening to refuse the invite on behalf of America while simultaneously persuading other like-minded friends to do the same.
In explaining the decision, President Biden should not politely decline; instead, he should make America’s reasons clear: the mass detention of Uyghurs, and other Muslims, to include ethnic Kazaks and Uzbeks, in concentration camps and the systematic cultural destruction that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is carrying out in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The scale of social and ethnic eradication is numbing. While the number of detentions is unknown, estimates range from one to three million Muslims. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates “approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies…a further 30% of important Islamic sacred sites have been demolished…and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered in some way.” In the face of such brazen state-sponsored cultural destruction, America should not legitimize an event meant to crown personal achievement while Beijing persecutes millions for their faith and ethnicity.
Through an ever-increasing totalitarian and dystopian view of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in domestic society, Chairman Xi Jinping has concentrated policy discussion and decision-making within a close-knit group of trusted insiders. One of these men is Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary of the XUAR and architect of the official state-termed “vocational education and training centers.” For his role in constructing this “New Gulag Archipelago” and the associated human rights abuses, Chen and other provincial Party officials were sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in July. While noble and long overdue, this effort brought no tangible punishment to the perpetrators and no real justice for the victims.
The reported atrocities coming from the XUAR are hard to fathom. Bans on men growing “abnormally” long beards and women wearing veils in public have been in place since 2017. With most of the men detained and most of the women scared to venture far from home, previously crowded mosques are now mostly empty. Quoted by the Wall Street Journal in March of 2019, a Uyghur resident of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s provincial capital, stated, “We can’t have a culture anymore.” He further commented that “he stopped visiting his local mosque after officials came to his house to confiscate his Quran. ‘No one goes anymore. It’s too dangerous.’” This mass imprisonment of Xinjiang’s Muslim men is only part of a larger travesty. China has replaced them with Han Chinese “relatives,” who, in addition to monitoring the home life of their assigned family, “regularly sleep in the same beds as the wives of men detained in the region’s internment camps,” according to Radio Free Asia.
The barbarisms are not limited to religious persecution and the forced quartering of random Han men. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies has written, Uyghur workers have been used as forced labor in Xinjiang and exported to work in other parts of China. The surveillance state China enforces in the XUAR has been termed the “most dystopian place in the world” by VICE News. In addition to the widespread detentions and labor exploitation, there are extensive allegations of forced abortions, sterilizations, and the use of involuntary birth control. In September, the Council on Foreign Relations released video commentary of Zumret Dawut, a former detainee in one of China’s concentration camps. Describing her experience, she stated: “We lost a part of our body; we lost our identity as women. We will never be able to have children again. They’ve cut one of our organs. It’s gone.” These state-directed actions appear to be deliberate attempts to provide Chinese authorities absolute power to shape regional demographics.
In standing up to China over its human rights abuses, President-elect Biden will have allies. In early October, the United States joined thirty-eight other nations, including most of the European Union along with Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, in expressing “grave concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang.” Shortly thereafter, The Economist called persecution of the Uyghurs a crime against humanity. At the end of October, and just days before one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced a resolution “to designate Uyghur human rights abuses by China as genocide.”
Despite the support, a proposed Olympic boycott begs the question: why pursue such a course of action when past attempts at using Olympic boycotts to protest national policy have met limited success? The most famous and recent two—the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, which was reciprocated by the Soviet Union in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics—largely failed to achieve positive policy outcomes. In both cases, the weakness lay with the protagonists’ inability to develop a formidable coalition. In October, Shannon Tiezzi explained the potential difference between these past two boycotts' minimal effect and the significant potential for one on the upcoming 2022 Olympics in Beijing. She writes: “The impact was diluted in each case, because a large number of sporting powerhouses were still participating. Things could be very different should there be an organized boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.”
That difference will be defined by how the Biden administration proceeds. As the transactional nature of “America first” foreign policy under President Donald Trump comes to an end, President-elect Biden can signal that U.S. diplomacy will again be grounded on a combination of values and interests, rather than interests alone. With this strategy shift, he can rebuild alliances with America’s traditional foreign partners, many of which have been frayed by four years of the Trump administration’s mercurial overseas engagement. A coalition of the Five Eyes—the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—in coordination with the European Union would serve as a mighty bulwark against the CCP’s attempts to simultaneously downplay its actions in Xinjiang while painting the Winter Olympics as a crowning achievement of its national leadership. Adding Japan and India to the partnership would align the four nations of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in a targeted policy stance and add much-needed teeth to the organization.
This scenario plays into one of the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fears: alliances forming against it. While the CCP regularly accuses the United States of having adopted a “Cold War mentality” and attempting to create an “Asian-NATO” in response to China’s resurgence, neither would be reflected in a 2022 Beijing boycott. Unlike 1980, the United States would not be protesting what a country is doing beyond its borders to a foreign population, but rather, the policies and actions it is directing against its own citizenry. Unlike NATO—a security alliance formed to deter Soviet aggression backed by collective military strength—this 2022 Beijing boycott coalition would be formed to deter Chinese human rights violations backed by collective national consciousness.
By refusing to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics, America is inflicting unconscionable punishment on citizen-athletes that have spent countless years preparing for finite moments. But it is only through levying this pain on some of its most talented citizens that the United States can most effectively send China the message that it will not get away with locking up some of its most disenfranchised.
President-elect Biden should relay the message to the CCP now. You have one year to release your Muslim prisoners and wholly empty and permanently close the concentration camps, or there will be fewer guests at your party.
Nicholas Hanson is currently a Mission Leader at Vannevar Labs. He is a joint degree MPP and MBA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School and formerly served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.