The Rev. Patrick Mahoney arrived in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in August 2008.
Along with two other freedom-of-religion activists, they unfurled a banner proclaiming “Jesus Christ is King” in front of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall. The Americans wanted to call attention to Beijing’s record of human rights abuses by protesting the Olympic Games China was hosting that month.
China is expected to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022. But few people believe China will stop violating the human rights of its citizens in the face of international condemnation and widespread calls to boycott the games. No country has officially declared a boycott. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes the position that it is a sporting body that does not get involved in politics.
Beijing is "fully confident the Beijing Winter Olympics will be a splendid event,” said China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, at a February 3 press briefing.
"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,” he added. “Such actions will not be supported by the international community and will never succeed."
Unlike Mahoney's Tiananmen demonstration in 2008, more than 180 human rights groups are calling for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games.
“When we unfurled the banner in Tiananmen Square, [passersby] were looking at us like a spaceship had landed in the middle of Tiananmen Square and aliens walked out of it,” he told VOA in a Skype interview last week.
“People were gathering around us, and you could tell they were witnessing something that they had never seen before,” he said. “And that was people peacefully going out in the public square and having a different view from the government.”
Eventually, authorities dragged the trio to a Chinese prison for six days, before expelling them on August 7, 2008—a day before the games opened in a ceremony that was watched by 2 billion people worldwide.
“When we saw the Olympics were taking place in Beijing in 2008, we thought this was a unique opportunity and platform to address these violations on a global stage and to really speak to the world what was happening in China,” he said.
'Authoritarianism was on full display'
Mahoney, who with his colleagues landed on Beijing’s travel blacklist, expected that the international attention the protest drew would pressure China to improve its human rights record.
Yet that expectation fell through. According to a January Human Rights Watch report, the Chinese government’s “authoritarianism was on full display in 2020 as it grappled with the deadly coronavirus outbreak first reported in Wuhan province.”
Beijing’s “repression—insisting on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party—deepened across the country,” the report states, citing abuses of Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, the replacement of Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese in Inner Mongolia’s schools, and the imposition of a “draconian” National Security Law in Hong Kong, “its most aggressive assault on Hong Kong people’s freedoms since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.”
Multiple members of the U.S. Congress are calling for the games to be moved from China. Republican representatives Guy Reschenthaler from Pennsylvania, Michael Waltz from Florida, and John Katko of New York—the lead Republican for the House Committee on Homeland Security—recently introduced a resolution urging the IOC to rebid hosting for the 2022 Games.
“I do not see how just 11 months from now, we reward the Chinese Communist Party with the honor and with the benefit of hosting the Olympic Games and giving the party that international platform for its ongoing cover up and its ongoing propaganda,” Congressman Waltz told VOA Mandarin.
'We are seeing a massive movement'
The quadrennial international games draw audiences in the billions. According to a report by market-measurement firm Nielsen, between August 8 and 24, 4.7 billion viewers—or 70% of the world’s population—watched Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics. In comparison, 3.9 billion watched the 2004 Athens Games, while 3.6 billion followed the 2000 Sydney Games on television.
In 2018, 1.92 billion people, or 28% of the world's population, watched the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, held February 9-25, according to organizers.
Earlier this month, more than a dozen Canadian lawmakers signed an open letter calling for the Olympics to be moved outside China, according to Canada’s Global News website.
Mahoney told VOA his calls for a boycott are different this time.
“It's as different as night and day,” he said. “In 2008, we were a lone voice pretty much, and there wasn't even a consensus. Right now, we are talking with members of Congress; we're talking with world leaders.
“We are seeing a massive movement, which I am greatly encouraged by,” he added, describing it as an "historic opportunity."
"It's a way forward through peaceful global commitment to kind of isolate China, to say, look, we're not against the government of China, we're against these abuses and we will more than welcome you in if you are willing to treat your people with dignity and respect and honor freedom, democracy and human rights,” he said.
Others disagree with that stance. Canadian Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, said a boycott would be "a gesture that we know will have no impact whatsoever."
"The games are not Chinese Games, the games are the IOC Games," he told the BBC. "The decision on hosting is not made with a view to signaling approval of a government policy."
David Lampton, a professor emeritus of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in a recent opinion piece for Newsweek that boycotting the 2022 Games will arouse nationalism and generate counterproductive internal and external behavior from China.
China’s citizens “will not view a boycott of the Olympics as a gesture of solidarity with a beleaguered population. Instead, they will consider it to be an attack on the Chinese people and their national and civilizational dignity, as well as an attempt to humiliate, not negotiate.”
The Biden administration on Thursday said it has yet to decide whether or not the U.S. will boycott the games.
“There hasn’t been a final decision made on that, and of course we would look for guidance from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing.
This story originated in VOA's Mandarin Service.