Why China’s Threat to Punish Outspoken Olympians Rings Hollow

China remains on high alert as the Olympics take place in Beijing. It’s not the Omicron variant that is making China nervous, even though hundreds of Olympic participants have already tested positive for COVID-19. Instead, China’s leaders appear increasingly concerned that Olympians could speak out about the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, even going so far as threatening to arrest Olympians who do.  

But China’s intimidation tactics ring hollow, namely because arresting outspoken Olympians would magnify attention on the Uyghurs’ plight and undermine Xi Jinping’s efforts to leverage the Olympics as a platform to resurrect China’s badly battered image. Beyond that, doing so would all but eliminate China’s chances of hosting a future Olympics, which would be a serious blow to Xi’s great-power ambitions.  

“Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, will be subject to certain punishment.” This warning was issued in the weeks before the games by Yang Shu, the deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee. Yang’s message to Olympians was clear—talk about human rights at your own risk. Relatedly, Chinese authorities began pre-emptively detaining human rights activists before the opening ceremony earlier this month, fearful they could stir up trouble.  

China’s latest moves come as more countries express concerns about the campaign of internment, forced sterilization, and rape inflicted on millions of ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Province, above all the Uyghurs. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is reportedly concluding an inquiry into China’s crimes against humanity. While Chinese officials have prevented Bachelet from traveling to China to conduct a proper investigation, U.N. officials familiar with the report have referred to it as “deeply disturbing.”  

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