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.”  

These and other mounting threats come at a delicate time for Xi. Recent economic data suggests China’s industrial output has cratered as Xi’s zero-COVID policies have forced millions into extended pandemic lockdowns. Ominously, China’s top law enforcement body remarked that with “the economic downturn, some deep-seated problems may surface.” China’s slowdown poses a direct threat to Xi and the CCP, whose political legitimacy is tied to their economic stewardship.  

With China’s economy in disarray and growing concerns about Xi’s standing, the last thing China’s leaders want is a major diplomatic crisis, let alone the prospect of sanctions after arbitrarily detaining an Olympic athlete.  

Indeed, global perceptions of China have tanked in response to Beijing’s refusal to collaborate with international investigations into COVID-19’s origins. Xi’s maximalist approach to China’s near abroad, including its repeated incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, has further isolated China. Arresting an Olympian would only harden negative views about Beijing, especially in Europe, where several countries have begun questioning the ethical and moral risks of deepening economic ties with China.  

What’s more, arresting an Olympian would seriously undercut Xi’s narrative about China’s ostensible respect for international norms, as well as his attempts to position China as an alternative to the United States. And Beijing must maintain a good reputation on both fronts if it wants to host a third Olympic Games, let alone usher in a new China-centric global order.   

To select future hosts, votes are conducted by secret ballot among the International Olympic Committee’s 101 members. At the U.N., where votes are open, China can promise aid or threaten to withhold it as a means of influencing a vote. Yet thanks to the IOC’s secret ballots, there is less risk should a country vote against China—that is so long as the U.S. rallies like-minded nations to vote for a democratic alternative.  

In the leadup to the games, several U.S. Olympians voiced concerns about China’s human rights atrocities. U.S. figure skater Timothy LeDuc called human rights abuses in China “horrifying,” while three-time Olympic ice dancer Evan Bates called the situation “abysmal” and “tearing at the fabric of humanity.” Bates’ remarks were seconded by American figure skaters and fellow Olympians Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, both of whom are of Chinese descent.  

Pleas about China’s crimes against humanity should not be limited to figure skaters, let alone Americans. When it comes to human rights, there is strength in numbers and China’s security apparatus would be hard-pressed to silence every athlete who speaks out. Even better, President Biden and other leaders should publicly state that the arbitrary arrest of any Olympic athlete would be met by the full force of their governments.  

While it may be too late to completely boycott the games, Olympians need not legitimize China’s horrific actions in the eyes of the world or domestically in China. Adolf Hitler managed to do as much with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, overcoming boycott threats from the United States and Europe. And, the world knows what followed. Let’s make sure history does not repeat itself in Beijing.  

Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat, is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute focused on foreign policy and national security.  

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