How to Protest the Beijing Olympics — a Response to Mitt Romney

In a New York Times op-ed, Mitt Romney has proposed a kind of boycott lite of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. This is in response to the PRC party-state’s repression which, Romney writes, “is exacting genocide against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.” Romney is concerned about depriving American athletes of an opportunity to compete in this global event, maybe even to win medals and to stand “atop the medals podium, hand to their hearts, as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays on Chinese soil.” But he is scrupulously avoiding — and perhaps intentionally steering us away from? — the much more effective way to oppose holding genocide Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

Romney says, don’t forbid athletes from taking part in the Olympics. Instead, we should institute “an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.” This consists of a couple things: 1) snubbing China by sending only a few diplomats to the Olympics, and instead inviting “dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us.” 2) telling those spectators planning to fly to China for the Olympics to stay away, thus delivering what Romney considers a grievous economic blow to hoteliers, restauranteurs and ticket scalpers; 3) convincing NBC to “refrain from showing any jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies and instead broadcast documented reports of China’s abuses.”

While I understand and share Romney’s sympathy for the athletes, what he proposes is completely unrealistic and carefully avoids doing anything that might actually demonstrate a level of international opprobrium commensurate with the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

First of all, for the US to “invite” dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent the US at the Olympics would a) get them in big trouble and b) delegitimize their causes, since the PRC will eagerly point to them — where Romney apparently envisions them, sitting in US section of the stands, in a forest of US flags — and call them American stooges. That’s a horrible idea.

Second, for the relatively few rich Americans who might have gone to the Beijing Olympics to instead decide not to go will make no noticeable difference on hotel occupancy, ticket sales and the like. Domestic Chinese demand is more than sufficient to pack Beijing venues and keep the restaurants busy. People in China have the money and desire to pay top-dollar, or rather top-yuan, for an Olympic experience. Romney’s proposed spectator boycott is pure virtue-signaling: “Well, sure, I was going to go to the Olympics, but you know, what with the genocide and all . . . . ”

Third, how on earth is NBC going to pick and choose which bits of the opening and closing ceremonies to air? There will certainly be a pool feed, for one thing, and NBC won’t be directing it. And the ceremonies will likely include sprawling historical pageants and parades of happy ethnic peoples. These will implicitly assert PRC sovereignty and CCP rule over Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uyghur Region and all non-Han peoples. Which camera angles will NBC not take? Such spectacles are not delivered a la carte. Glittering technology, high-speed trains and the Belt and Road Initiative may well feature in the Beijing Olympic ceremonies. Boastful? Certainly. Jingoistic? Arguably. But not in a way that can be surgically censored as Romney suggests a compliant NBC will do. (Note the irony: in a response to PRC state-controlled media, Romney is suggesting the US government “collaborate” with NBC to determine how the network will cover the event.) Sure, NBC can prepare pieces about what else is going on in China, and air them in the rare interstices between sports events and up-close-and-personal profiles of athletes. But of course, the PRC has kicked most western journalists out of China, so it’s not clear how NBC would report on the Xinjiang internment camps or forced Uyghur labor, for example.

It’s a tough call, I agree. I not only sympathize with the athletes but also with the Chinese people. I don’t want to rain on their parade either. I’m not even sure what I think about a US official boycott as a matter of policy; it’s probably inevitable and necessary, but sad. But regardless of the US government decision, I would view as truly heroic any athlete, particularly a famous one, who chose on their own accord to sacrifice their shot at a medal this time, given the mass imprisonment, birth suppression, and cultural erasure being inflicted on the non-Han natives of Xinjiang.

However, there is a better way of opposing the CCP and protesting the IOC’s decision to hold the Olympics as usual, as if millions of Uyghurs were not in camps, their language and culture not under assault, their families not being wrenched apart to “optimize” the population in Xinjiang. This approach may even give the IOC pause the next time it is tempted to accept a bid from an authoritarian country to host the Olympics. Romney says it’s enough if people simply stay away. I have one answer to that:

“Corporations are people too, my friend.”

The big money in the Olympics is not in hotel rooms or bowls of noodles. It’s in corporate sponsorships and global advertising. And we have a very convenient list of the most prominent sponsors of the Olympics at our fingertips: The Olympic Partner Programme (TOP) gathers and showcases the 13 [sic] multinationals who “through their support . . . provide the foundation for the staging of the Olympic Games and help athletes from over 200 nations participate on the world’s biggest sporting stage.” We hate to tell a young skater or snow-boarder that their winter Olympic dreams have melted thanks to a government’s crimes against humanity. But are we so hesitant to tell the multinationals to just stay home? Here are the proud thirteen multinationals, plus a couple others, still leading the pack to sponsor the genocide Olympics:

Coca-cola

Airbnb

Alibaba Group

Allianz

Atos

Bridgestone

Dow

GE

Intel

Mengniu 蒙牛

Omega

Panasonic

P & G

Samsung

Toyota

Visa

Rather than try to get NBC to tweak its coverage, as Romney wants, if the US wants to take a public-private partnership approach, it could express its displeasure to these companies for still proudly sponsoring the 2022 Olympics.

But it will perhaps be even more effective if people all over the world make that point. We should tell these companies and the IOC that we are not happy they are financing a shindig in Beijing that the CCP will treat as a victory lap. The PRC will throw money at the Olympics to glitz it up anyway. But these corporations should be made painfully aware of their complicity, if they agree to be TOP sponsors of what will surely go down in history as a genocide Olympics.

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.

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