The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
As the Washington Post recently reported, human rights activists and others are advocating a boycott of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, because of the Chinese government's many egregious atrocities, including its detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in concentration camps, brutal repression in Hong Kong, and much else.
Calls for a boycott are justified. The present Chinese government isn't just any dictatorship. It is one of the worst human rights abusers in the entire world. And there is no other way to prevent the Olympic Games from becoming a propaganda showcase for this regime. Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao recently called for a boycott for that very reason. We should listen to him.
For decades, people of goodwill have debated whether liberal democracies should boycott Olympic Games and other sports events held under the auspices of repressive governments. Apartheid South Africa was the target of a long-standing sports boycott that denied it the right to even participate in most international sports events, much less host them. Sixty-two nations, including the United States, boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan….
The standard argument against boycotts is the traditional idea that international sports events should be kept free of politics. The problem with this theory is that the Olympics and other similar events are virtually always used as propaganda tools by host governments, as happened with Nazi Germany in 1936, the USSR in 1980, and Vladimir Putin's regime in 2014 [with the Winter Olympics held in Sochi]. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to make them genuinely politically neutral. The only realistic options are either to allow repressive regimes to use the Games to burnish their public image, keep them from hosting in the first place, or forestall their propaganda by means of a boycott that undercuts the Games' public relations benefits for the hosts…
[S]ome [host] governments commit serious human rights violations in the very process of preparing for the games themselves. For example, China forcibly displaced some one million people in order to prepare facilities for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Brazil displaced many thousands in order to build new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. Even if it is wrong to boycott in protest of "unrelated" human rights violations, the international sports community should not tolerate abuses that are an integral part of the sports event itself.
I have not been able to find figures on forcible displacement in preparation for the 2022 Beijing games. But, given its track record, it would be surprising if China did not engage in that practice this time around.
Some have suggested that, instead of boycotting, Western athletes should hold protests at the games themselves, and use the opportunity to criticize Chinese repression. But any such protests are likely to be drowned out by the media attention devoted to the sports events themselves, and what is likely to be fawning coverage of the hosts' opening ceremonies and other propaganda set-pieces. By contrast, a boycott would focus world attention on the Chinese government's human rights abuses, while simultaneously reducing any PR and economic benefits the regime might earn from the Games. If all or most liberal democracies boycott, TV ratings for the Games will plummet, and media and public attention will instead focus on the boycott itself -as happened during the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Even a widespread boycott may not force the Chinese government to change its policies. But it will at least deny the regime a propaganda victory, and impose a price for its behavior.
If there is a downside to boycotts in such cases, it is the disappointment suffered by athletes who will lose the opportunity to compete at what, for many, is the most prestigious event in their respective sports. But that can potentially be prevented if boycotting states simultaneously pressure the International Olympic Committee to revoke China's right to host the Games and instead shift them elsewhere. I have long argued that the IOC and other similar international bodies should adopt a general policy of banning hosting by repressive regimes. Revoking China's hosting rights would be a good start on the road to eliminating the dark side of the Olympics.
As Teng Biao points out, such a policy would be in accordance with the IOC's own professed principles, since the Olympic Charter calls for "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity" and "social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." Allowing China (and other similar regimes) to host the Olympics is obviously incompatible with these ideals.
If the IOC refuses to see reason, there is also the option of organizing an alternative winter games in a more liberal society. Plenty of democracies have the necessary facilities. If all or most liberal democratic nations boycott, and instead participate in the alternative games, the latter are likely to have a higher standard of performance in most winter sports than the official IOC event. European and North American nations have the lion's share of top athletes in most winter sports.
In the final analysis, no opportunity for athletic achievement is valuable enough to justify promoting the propaganda interests of a regime that has become one of the most brutally oppressive in the world. Ideally, the West and its allies should force the IOC to move the Games. If that cannot be done, we should boycott.