July 21, 2024

Op: The Beijing Olympics are an Embarrassment to US Foreign Policy 

Michel Bayarjargal '24

[picture from the Economist]

In December of 2021, Washington decided not to send US officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. This diplomatic boycott was meant as a strong gesture of disapproval over China’s systemic genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. The New York Times described this decision as “one of President Biden’s most public condemnations of Beijing.” Public gestures and appearances at important international events are crucial to upholding civility among rival nations. In Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov’s words, this boycott is “pointless”—and he is right, but not in the way he thinks he is. Diplomatic boycotts do not stop genocides, and this lack of urgency displayed by the Biden administration is nothing short of a travesty. The mind-boggling ineffectiveness of this non-action speaks volumes to the state of our society. 

In 2017, China began placing Uyghur Muslims in “vocational education and training centres” shortly after the CCP announced its “people’s war on terror” policy in 2014. These camps are allegedly designed to de-radicalise Muslim extremists and promote civil integration of Turkic and Muslim minority groups in China. In reality, these camps are nothing short of concentration camps, one of a long list of actions that can only be described as systemic genocide of all ethnic minorities within China. To be clear, the CCP is not openly committing mass murder in these camps—that would be too obvious. Instead, China retains plausible deniability by covering up sweatshop labour and ideological indoctrination as “vocational skills education and training,” as well as forced sterilization under the guise of “stabilization of birth rates.”  

The world slowly became aware of China’s egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019. By July of 2019, 22 members of the UN had released a statement condemning the CCP for its actions. During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and Covid-related sinophobia in mid-2020, the media was flooded with news of the concentration camps alongside coverage of the Hong Kong protests. After the attention died down, what changed? Nothing. China took control over Hong Kong as planned and the concentration camps continued uninterrupted. While Russia faces crippling economic sanctions and the threat of military conflict against NATO forces for its invasion of Ukraine, China gets to host the most prestigious winter sports event in the world. The US has been in uneasy tension against both nuclear powers for decades now. The difference between the two? One is the world’s manufacturing hub and second most powerful consumer market; the other is a poor economy running on bravado and fumes.  

China is no stranger to cultural genocide. Tibet has long suffered under the CCP; the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s religious and political leader, was exiled alongside 100,000 others from Tibet since 1959 and has campaigned for Tibetan independence ever since. Independence movements have existed in Xinjiang since its establishment as an autonomous region within China, some of which culminated in several terrorist attacks in the 1990s and the 2014 Urumqi car bombings. In September of 2020, the CCP banned the use of the Mongolian language in Southern Mongolian schools. Protests ensued, but nothing could be done. The key motivator behind all of these events is geopolitical stability.  

Tibet, Xinjiang, and Southern Mongolia and the ethnic minorities within them create a buffer zone around China’s ethnic Han heartland (Han being the dominant ethnic group in modern China), but also give it access to key resources and trading routes. Historically, China was surrounded by groups of pillaging nomads who would skirmish along China’s borders, come under the influence of settled agrarian society, and eventually become enveloped as ‘Han’ themselves. This process within the context of China is called sinicisation, and it is a fairly normal phenomenon along the borders of any empire. The genocide of minorities within these regions of modern China is simply following the same pattern, but this time around it is an active and concentrated effort by a centralized government to bring total control and political unity to the most populous nation on earth.  

For all its talk about liberty, the United States does not have a good track record of bringing liberty to those who need it most. Despite dozens of military and economic interventions in the past century, most of which were framed in moral terms, the United States seems incapable of effective action against one of the biggest enemies of human rights in the modern world. President Trump’s 2018 tariffs on Chinese goods were poorly planned and short-lived, and most of the legislation passed in direct response to the Uyghur crisis has targeted only specific members of the CCP and bar the import of goods exclusively made in concentration camp sweat shops. There is no confusion as to why the US has been so conservative in its response—economic codependence. The US runs an infamously high trade deficit with China, with the figure coming in at $310 billion in 2020. Giant tech firms like Apple benefit enormously from China’s growing middle class. The reality is that the United States cannot directly confront China without making large economic sacrifices. All of this is without even mentioning the nuclear implications of a military solution.  

I am not advocating for some primitive protectionism, nor am I enthusiastic about a fever dream of military intervention. This is not an attack against the Chinese people, and my criticism does not stem from a ‘red scare’ against the People’s Republic of China’s political ideology. Pure and simple, my concern is for the millions of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians who live under constant threat of erasure at the hands of a tyrannical government. My anger is directed at the fact that the best the Biden administration could offer in terms of disapproval was a non-action: the absence of US officials at the Beijing games instead of the presence of a tangible policy.  

If there was ever any doubt about the United States’ supposed title as moral arbiter of the world, you can be sure that the US no longer holds it, if it ever did.  


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