Uighur rights groups are urging multinational corporations that have agreed to sponsor the Beijing Winter Olympics, to boycott what they call the “Genocide Games” and use their platforms instead to educate the world about China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province ahead of the 2022 event.
So far none of the big-name sponsors have endorsed the Uighur campaigners’ calls for justice.
Observers who spoke to VOA say that’s because companies haven’t felt the political pressure, which they expect to build as the games draw closer.
“Here we are 12 months before the games begin. The fact that some companies are not yet talking about the boycott, I think it’s because they haven’t felt the political pressure or the effect of the boycott on their own products. But they will. You’ll see increasingly that happens,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Northampton, Massachusetts-based Smith College told VOA.
“Every company is going to assess the state of political protests and the state of the boycott. At this point, the international uproar around China human rights issue is just beginning,” he added.
The 2022 Beijing winter games are slated to run from Feb. 4-20 next year.
Zimbalist, the author of “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” said that he expects to see growing “embarrassment” and “bad publicity” around China’s rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, which will likely translate into a “very significant public relations loss” in its hosting of the winter games.
That may push the likes of U.S-based beverage company Coca-Cola, or The Olympic Partners (TOP), to exert their influence or re-negotiate their sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in a legal battle, which, however, won’t play out in public due to bad publicity, the professor said.
VOA’s emailed inquiries to several TOP sponsors including Coca Cola, online vacation rental company Airbnb, and global tech giants Samsung and Intel went mostly unanswered.
In its reply to VOA, Omega refused to comment on topics that it says lie outside its role as the games’ official timekeeper.
Allianz told VOA that it remains committed to its 2021-2028 sponsorship agreement because “we want to be visible” although it also claims to follow “a zero-tolerance line towards discrimination of any kind.”
Kowtowing to China?
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of exiled Uighur groups, denounced the IOC and sponsors such as Airbnb, which heralds its practice of social responsibility, for kowtowing to China’s economic clout.
The companies will pay a commercial price if they continue to associate their brands with what he called the Genocide Games, Raxit told VOA over the phone.
“Only a boycott will send a clear message to China. And any form of compromises will be used by Beijing to advance its political agenda. We call for a tougher stance on Beijing’s hosting of the winter games because a softened gesture exhibits a disguised support for an authoritarian regime,” he said.
In a global campaign, Uighur activists call on TOP sponsors to revoke their sponsorship. Airbnb is believed to be the first to be targeted by the campaign, which reportedly will compare photos of accommodation listed on Airbnb and those purportedly in Xinjiang’s so-called reeducation camps.
A coalition of more than 180 rights groups have also called for a boycott of the 2022 event on the ground that Beijing’s massive right abuses violate the Olympic Charter.
China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin flatly rejected the rights groups' criticism. During an earlier news briefing, Wang said, "it is highly irresponsible for some parties to try and disrupt, intervene and sabotage the preparation and holding of the games to serve their political interests. Such actions will not be supported by the international community and will never succeed." China has also consistently denied allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang, insisting those camps were "vocation educational and training centers.”
Growing political awareness
Already, politicians from the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada have spoken up, urging their governments not to send athletes or diplomats to the games if the IOC refuses to relocate the staging to another city.
And athletes may also speak out by way of social media posts as a result of their growing political awareness, said Zimbalist of Smith College.
Zimbalist said estimates show that political posts made by athletes to attract followers in the United States have the potential to generate $1.2 billion in social media revenues.
But there are also calls not to boycott.
In his Newsweek opinion piece last week, David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argued that the boycott idea will meet resistance and prove as ineffective as the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.
“There are other effective ways in which to reinforce global norms” than walking off the field of competition, he added.
Chien-yu Shih, secretary-general of Taiwan Association of Central Asian Studies, said he finds such a boycott appropriate although he’s worried that athletes will be the worst hit, not China.
“I find it necessary to use the boycott as a strategy to pressure China. But it remains to be seen if such a boycott should be carried out. I agree that this [boycott] may not solve anything but to make China look bad. And China probably won’t care as its image hasn’t been positive,” Shih told VOA by phone.
Neither do TOP sponsors have the luxury to walk the talk on human rights, said Xin Wang, president of Charigo Center for International Economic Cooperation in Beijing.
“Sponsors are mostly after economic benefits. Companies may talk about rights- or politics-related issues. But economic incentives will determine whether they will eventually take the action,” Wang told VOA.