China sought the Summer Olympics in 2008 and the Winter Olympics in 2022 to burnish its international reputation. And all the while the government’s relentless crackdown rolls on, with the harassment or jailing of hundreds of lawyers, journalists, and human rights advocates.
As Olympics hosting responsibilities shift to China, the human rights situation and challenges they pose deserve a closer look. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was hope “China’s coming-out party” would bring meaningful reforms, especially since 25,000 international journalists would be on the ground covering the Games.
Instead, Human Rights Watch documented extensive human rights violations directly linked to the preparation and the hosting of the Games, including massive forced evictions, a surge in the arbitrary arrest, detention, and harassment of government critics.
Since assuming power in March 2013, President Xi Jinping has presided over a broad crackdown on rights. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the government’s deepening contempt for rights than the July 2017 death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital under heavy guard.
While the human rights situation in China has gotten worse, the standards in the world of sports have improved. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) pledged to uphold the United Nations Guiding Principles on Human Rights, which outline how commercial enterprises need to assess human rights risks, take steps to avoid human rights problems, and ensure remedies for abuses that occur.
To prevent rights abuses tied to the next Winter Olympics, the IOC needs to begin consultations now with independent civil society groups and activists from China to address their concerns.
Human rights and human dignity are central principles in the Olympic Charter, and it’s also an operational concern for the IOC: How can reporters cover Olympics preparations if China’s “Great Firewall” enabling total internet censorship is in place?
China has made it clear it wants to host major international events, so the government should be prepared to meet international rights standards, including on press freedom and labor rights.
Any planning for Beijing’s Winter Games needs to go beyond ice rinks and alpine facilities – and ensure one legacy of China’s next Olympics is real human rights improvements.