On February 20, 2022, just two short years from now, Beijing will host the closing ceremonies for that year’s winter Olympics. Those ceremonies will serve as the denouement for a grand propaganda spectacle, one that the Chinese Communist Party will use to boost its domestic legitimacy and to boast of its unstoppable rise on the international scene. Or at least that’s what Chinese leader Xi Jinping hopes.
On the other hand, Xi may come to see his decision to bid for the 2022 games as a strategic misstep—one in which he unwittingly handed leverage to the free world. And that is precisely how the United States and likeminded countries should think about Beijing 2022. It is not every day that the CCP willingly provides others the means to pressure it over its human rights record.
There are good reasons for the United States and other like-minded countries to use that leverage, by credibly threatening to keep their elite athletes from competing on the sports world’s grandest stage. Foremost among them is the detention of up to 3 million Muslims in concentration camps—where they face torture, sexual violence, forced sterilization, and other horrors—for the simple crime of adhering to Islam. Life for Muslims is tough outside the camps as well, where initiatives include dispatching Han Chinese men to live in homes with, and share the beds of, Uighur women whose husbands have been indefinitely detained. And even as camp populations may be shrinking, the specter of forced labor has reared its ugly head across Xinjiang.
Human rights abuses in Xinjiang may be the most nakedly egregious, but China has a horrid record in every direction. Conditions in Tibetan areas of China are so repressive that nearly 160 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest over the last decade. In December, Wang Yi, a prominent Protestant pastor, was sentenced to nine years in prison for crimes including “inciting to subvert state power.” And too often, those who speak out end up paying with their lives. Most recently, Chinese police reprimanded Dr. Li Wenliang after he warned friends, in a private chat room, of a SARS-like illness in Wuhan. Authorities continued to conceal the outbreak, Dr. Li returned to work, and he ended up succumbing to the very virus about which he tried to raise an alarm.