With the 2022 Winter Olympics well underway in Beijing, a coalition of activists from around the world is vowing to keep up its pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Chinese government throughout the two weeks of the competition, which they’ve dubbed the “Genocide Games.”
The organizers, many of them women in their early twenties and thirties, have launched a series of events to run on each day until the end of the Games on Feb. 20. “During the month of February we will be continuing our campaign against Beijing 2022, shining a spotlight on China's egregious human rights abuses,” Pema Doma, Campaigns Director for Students for a Free Tibet, told The Daily Beast. “Together we’ll continue to challenge Chinese propaganda at Beijing 2022.”
One of their main programs is the #IWillNotWatch campaign, heavily promoted on social media to discourage viewers around the world from watching the Olympics “and to counter Beijing’s propaganda show,” Zumretay Arkin, Program and Advocacy Manager for the World Uighur Congress in Munich, told The Daily Beast.
On Feb. 4, as Beijing was airing its glitzy Opening Ceremony, the coalition live-streamed Beijing 2022: The Alternative Opening Ceremony, where several young Tibetans, Uighurs, and Hongkongers convened to spotlight China’s human rights abuses.
NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremony attracted just 14 million TV viewers, making it one of the least-viewed opening ceremonies in the history of the Olympics, according to statistics from NBC Sports. This marked a stark decline of about 43 percent from the 23.8 million viewers who watched the Opening Ceremony for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2018.
The day before the ceremony, activists stepped up their pressure with a series of demonstrations in 65 cities around the world to protest what they called “the IOC’s failure to hold China accountable for their serious and worsening human rights abuses.”
At a protest in San Francisco, a Tibetan monk clad in a maroon robe walked at the front of the march holding a portrait of the Dalai Lama as he led some 100 marchers south across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Chinese Consulate in downtown San Francisco. Behind him, several Uighurs waved the flag of the East Turkestan independence movement, which is unofficially used by activists to represent China’s Xinjiang Province. Others carried placards that read, “No Rights, No Games,” and “No More Shame Games.” Another showed a skier standing in front of an Army tank, a reference to the iconic photo of the Tank Man, a Chinese citizen who used his body to stop a column of tanks rolling down a Beijing street in 1989 during an anti-democracy crackdown.
As the March wound its way through the streets of San Francisco, bystanders stopped to take photos and to applaud the protesters. Dozens of drivers beeped their horns and leaned out of their cars to shout support.
When China won the Summer Olympics in 2008, rights activists expressed concerns about the country’s dismal human rights record. In response, China and the IOC argued that the Games would actually improve human rights and rule of law in China.
Activists say that the opposite happened. China, encouraged by the legitimacy given to it by its successful hosting of the 2008 Games, stepped up its suppression of human rights.
Since 2008, an estimated 160 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against China’s increasingly abusive policies in Tibet, which Freedom House has ranked the least free place on earth, tied with Syria. In Xinjiang, as many as 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people, have been thrown into brutal prison camps, which the Chinese refer to as “re-education schools.” Hong Kong has also faced a severe crackdown against democracy, with prominent politicians, activists and journalists arrested, and civic organizations shut down.
“The Chinese government has felt emboldened since 2008,” says Chemi Lhamo, a 25-year-old Canadian-Tibetan activist in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It got the message from the international community that it was okay with China’s abuses, that the world will turn a blind eye to this.”
This time around, no one is predicting that the Olympics will democratize the country. Touting an authoritarian one-party rule as an alternative to Western-style democracy, China has risen to become an economic, technological and military powerhouse. Chinese leader Xi Jinping still wants to be legitimized by holding the Olympics, but he sees no need to placate the international community.
“How in the world does it make sense for China to host the Games when it has such a brutal record?” said Lhamo. “Things have not gotten better—they’ve gotten worse.”
Activists representing disparate peoples in China began to strategize immediately after China was awarded the Winter Games. In October 2020, a delegation representing 160 human rights groups had a virtual meeting with the IOC hoping to convince the body to either cancel or relocate the Winter Olympics. The meeting didn’t go well, some of those who attended the meeting told The Daily Beast.
“The conversation was tense, and they were not very respectful of the activists,” says Frances Hui, the 21-year-old director of We The Hongkongers, who took part in the meeting. “Each of us shared our own firsthand, heartfelt experiences. I couldn’t believe it when they told us the Olympics was simply about people from around the world playing sports.”
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who also took part in the meeting, says the IOC responded with the same excuse that was given in 1936 when Nazi Germany was awarded the Games: politics and sports should be kept apart. “The IOC refuses to listen,” he told The Daily Beast. “Human rights are getting worse and there is growing evidence of that. The IOC is clear about what’s happening in China. But it doesn’t care.”
The activists decided to call for a full boycott of the Games, which they conceded would be an uphill battle. An alliance of some 200 groups began to write letters, organize petitions, and stage protests around the world. Campaigners representing Tibetan, Uighur, Hongkonger and Chinese activists urged international corporations to stop their sponsorship of the Winter Olympics, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Leading world corporations feared offending Beijing and risking one of the world’s biggest markets.
Allianz, the insurance and financial services giant, one of 13 international corporate sponsors, is believed to be the only sponsor that agreed to meet with campaigners. Company officials politely listened to speakers and promised to discuss the issue in-house. But there was no further response, even after activists staged a sit-in and chained themselves to the door of the Allianz building in Berlin last month.
Some of the protests leading up to the Games have even led to arrests. In October last year, Greek police detained 18-year-old Tibetan student Tsela Zoksang and Hong Kong activist Joey Siu, after the two climbed the scaffolding at the Acropolis, where they waved the Tibetan flag and the flag of the “Hong Kong revolution” and shouted “Boycott Beijing 2022” and “Free Tibet.” The following day, demonstrators disrupted the official torch lighting ceremony at the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, where the torch is traditionally lit just before being carried across the globe to the site of the Olympics. The protesters unfurled a Tibetan flag and a banner that read, “No Genocide Games,” before Greek police shoved them to the ground.
The following month, Lhamo and several other activists carried a mock black coffin bearing the Olympic Rings to the IOC headquarters. “We held a mock funeral for the IOC because the three values of the Olympics—excellence, friendship and respect—are dead; the IOC clearly doesn’t care about them,” said Lhamo. “The only friendship I see is with the Chinese government.”
Days after the mock funeral, protesters camped outside the White House for 57 hours, urging President Joe Biden to take action against the Games. On Dec. 7, Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, citing human rights abuses, but stopped short of prohibiting American athletes from taking part. Britain, Australia, Japan and Canada followed up with similar announcements.
Activists took credit for the diplomatic boycott.
“I do see this as a result of our ‘NoBeijing2022’ Campaign,” says Siu, one of the activists who was detained in Greece. “We held protests all over the globe. We had activists sleeping outside the White House. This was a direct result of our collective efforts.”
In the months leading up to the opening ceremony, the coalition began to reach out to Olympic athletes to tell them about the human rights situation in China in hopes of convincing some to withdraw from the competition, or to at least make a political statement at the Games.
“Athletes should never have been put in a situation where they need to choose between legitimizing genocide or human rights,” says Hui, the We The Hongkongers director. “But this is the reality: Beijing 2022 is not the opportunity Olympic athletes were promised and Thomas Bach and the IOC have failed the athletes by putting them in this situation.”
Anticipating that athletes might make such statements, Beijing issued a threat. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” warned Yang Shu, deputy director of Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee.
Then, just days before the opening ceremony, several athletes from different countries announced anonymously that they would boycott the Opening Ceremony to show solidarity with the victims of human rights abuses, the Washington Post reported. The athletes said they would not explain their absence until after the games to avoid being punished. According to Students for a Free Tibet, some 150 of Team USA's 224 athletes walked in the Opening Ceremony, while less than half of Team Canada participated.
The organizers say they’re disappointed they failed to achieve their goal of bringing about a boycott of the games, but they remain optimistic. “There have been huge changes since we launched this movement,” says Hui. “People are now much more aware of the situation in China. A lot of people now know about the human rights abuses there.”
Lhamo says the coalition has no choice but to continue their protests against Beijing 2022. “We have to continue to raise our voices for the people back home because the oppression is not going to go away,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s only going to get worse.”