Activists say Olympic diplomatic boycotts 'simply not enough,' call for further action against China

The Winter Olympics take place in Beijing from Feb. 4-20.

February 3, 2022, 5:32 AM

With the open ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games Friday, the movement to boycott the event has been intensifying with a rising number of protests in recent weeks, as seen lately in Indonesia, Taiwan, Germany, Austria, and Belgium.

Citizens protested to denounce Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government's propaganda, labor conditions, its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as its actions to squash freedom of expression and press, among a long list of issues. However, activists and human rights organizations said diplomatic boycotts can only go so far and that so much more needs to be done to improve conditions in China.

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told ABC News that human rights-related commitments made by the Chinese government in the past have mostly fallen short despite what it's said publicly.

"From greater latitude for journalists, to more open internet access, to at least a little bit of room for Chinese people in China to demonstrate ... it really failed on all those counts," Richard said. And "nobody really imposed any consequences and response to that failure."

The Chinese government often dismisses or denies these claims, as its Commerce Ministry did last year about allegations of forced labor, before saying that the country will "take necessary measures to firmly safeguard Chinese companies' legitimate rights and interests," after the U.S. blacklisted 14 Chinese companies.

People attend a demonstration against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Berlin, Jan. 4, 2022.
EPA via Shutterstock

Though Human Rights Watch, one of the 243 global groups to call for action against China, is in favor of a diplomatic boycott, Richardson said that "in the grand scheme of things, it's much more important that the governments push ahead with the idea of a U.N.-backed investigation into" possible prosecutions "for crimes against humanity for the Chinese government officials who are credibly alleged to be complicit in these crimes."

Diplomatic boycotts are "simply not enough," Mabel Tung, Chair of the NGO Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement (VSSDM), told ABC News.

Tung's group, along with fellow NGO, the Vancouverites Concerned About Hong Kong, united last week in front of the Canadian Olympics broadcaster, CBC, to encourage people not to watch the Olympics on TV or social media platforms.

By boycotting the Olympics, the group said it's attacking China's economy, which can be a more efficient tool than a diplomatic boycott.

The French government is among those who are not boycotting the Olympics and will send two representatives at the games. However, the French National Assembly recently voted to recognize the Uyghur genocide.

A man holds a placard as he takes part in a protest calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Jan. 4, 2022.
Yves Herman/Reuters

These decisions are a "total shame," Centre-leftist Eurodeputy, and one of the leading voices on the Uyghur's plight in France, Raphaël Glucksmann, told ABC News.

"If finally in the European institutions, we have been speaking of the torture of the Uyghurs and the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party, it is thanks to these young people," Glucksmann said.

Activists, like 22-year-old Hongkongese-American and policy advisor of U.K.-based charity Hong Kong Watch Joey Siu, are further proof that the youth has been a driving force in this fight as seen in the many protests worldwide.

"When we're talking about a genocide, there has to be a red line," Siu told ABC News.

Siu said a diplomatic boycott is "only the most basic" first step and that "in the long term, what's more important is that countries should really be formulating policies to tackle the genocide, to tackle China and hold China accountable for its human rights abuses." She pointed to the U.S. and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act the country passed weeks ago as a good example of holding China accountable.

Human Rights Watch estimates that "as many as a million Uyghurs and others" have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang over the last several years.

Zumretay Arkin, an Uyghur-Canadian human rights advocate and program manager at the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization that represents the collective interest of the Uyghur people in East Turkistan and abroad, shared Siu's enthusiasm for actions beyond boycotts.

Speaking of the "genocide" in East Turkistan, the 28-year-old Arkin called the situation "extremely dire."

Her organization launched a boycott campaign a year and a half ago, and also reached out to multiple Olympic sponsors but "none of them really responded."

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