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Beijing Olympics should not distract from China’s human rights controversies: experts

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WATCH: Beijing Winter Olympics set to kick off despite COVID-19 and controversies – Feb 2, 2022

As the Beijing Winter Olympics get underway, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed Thursday that his country will deliver a “streamlined, safe and splendid Games.”

Yet behind the athletic spectacle, China’s human rights record and recent crackdowns on democracy in places like Hong Kong continue to be scrutinized, with many activists still calling for the Games to be boycotted or even cancelled.

Experts say that while it will be tough for China to make the world ignore its recent controversies, the Olympics could become a starting point for a renewed diplomatic push to improve the country’s record.

Read more: The Beijing Winter Olympics are about to begin. Here’s what to expect

“(China) has a lot of headwinds, and those headwinds they have in large part created for themselves,” said Robert Adamson, a faculty member at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who studies China’s impact on the world.

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“This is a long game for the Chinese Communist Party … to show the rest of the world that they deserve their position in the world, despite their track record.”

Here are some of the issues that have sparked calls for a wider, international boycott of these Olympic Games:

Treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

China is accused of detaining more than a million Turkic Muslim Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang region as part of a campaign to wipe out their traditional culture, language and beliefs.

Foreign experts, governments and media have documented the detentions, as well as the demolition of mosques and forced sterilization and abortion.

The Chinese government denies any human rights violations and says it has taken steps to eliminate separatism and extremism in Xinjiang.

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Uyghur activist describes family’s disappearance – Mar 31, 2021

Yet photographic evidence and witness testimonials have been enough to convince many Western countries, including Canada, to label the Uyghurs’ treatment as a “genocide.”

It was also one of the main reasons given by Canada, the U.S. and other allies for their diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, which will see government officials refuse to attend while allowing athletes from those countries to compete.

Hong Kong

The diplomatic boycotts were also spurred by China’s systematic crackdown on Hong Kong.

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In the face of mass demonstrations in 2019 calling for Hong Kong — a democratic territory that is still under Chinese rule through a “one country, two systems” policy — to become fully independent, Beijing passed a national security law in 2020 that forbids secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs.

The law has been used to crack down on political protests and slogans, with independent pro-democracy media outlets forced to shutter and journalists and editors detained.

Read more: Canada, U.S. ‘gravely concerned’ as pro-Beijing candidates win Hong Kong election

“There’s a chilling effect in play,” Adamson said, noting that even journalists and Hong Kong nationals who speak to international media could be subject to the law.

Hong Kong’s most recent elections last month only allowed “patriots” loyal to Beijing to run as candidates after China reworked Hong Kong’s election laws.

Taiwan

Another volatile piece of China’s empire, Taiwan, is also feeling increased pressure from Beijing, though for very different reasons.

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Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan considers itself a fully independent, democratic country with its own elected government. But China still claims the island as its own territory, with Xi recently promising reunification through either peace or force.

China’s international pressure has seen Taiwan’s allies shrink to just 14 that recognize its sovereignty. Beijing has also increased its military presence in the South China Sea, sending dozens of warplanes in near-daily formations as a show of strength.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to maintain her country’s independence through diplomacy, angering China. Tsai’s predecessor was friendly to China and had endorsed Beijing’s claim that the two are part of a single Chinese nation.

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China’s Xi says ‘reunification’ with Taiwan must and will be realized – Oct 9, 2021

Tibet

In recent years, Beijing has stepped up controls over Buddhist monasteries in the territory and expanded education in the Chinese rather than Tibetan language, the latest development in a decades-long conflict.

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Critics of such policies are routinely detained and can receive long prison terms, especially if they have been convicted of association with the 86-year-old Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since fleeing Tibet during an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

China doesn’t recognize the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile based in the hillside town of Dharmsala, and accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to separate Tibet from China.

A recent announcement from the Chinese government urges Tibetans looking for work to renounce all ties with the Dalai Lama, according to media reports.

Aggressive diplomacy

China’s aggressive approach to diplomacy hit close to Canada during the years-long arbitrary detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, which was finally resolved last September.

Spavor and Kovrig were detained on espionage allegations days after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested and held under house arrest in Vancouver at the request of the U.S., which wanted Canada to export the tech executive for allegedly violating trade sanctions on Iran.

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Read more: The two Michaels are free. Could a Canadian locked up in China for 15 years be next?

Beijing denied the two cases were connected. But hours after Meng struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors that allowed her to return to China, Spavor and Kovrig were released and sent back home to Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly accused China of using such tactics to prevail in diplomatic disputes, and the incident remains fresh in the West’s mind.

COVID-19

In the lead-up to the Winter Games, China has doubled down on its “zero tolerance” COVID-19 policy, sealing off cities, shutting transport links and launching mass testing programs.

Residents of Beijing have had to undergo abrupt local lockdowns and increased testing. The movement of all athletes, Games personnel and media will be restricted within a “closed loop.”

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Yet the controversy surrounding China’s response to the pandemic isn’t limited to the Olympics.

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WHO puts in place panel on COVID-19 origins, says it may be ‘last chance’ – Oct 13, 2021

Beijing has not only limited investigations into the origins of COVID-19, which is widely believed to have first been detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but has also suggested the virus may have come from another country entirely.

The Chinese government has called for investigations into U.S. military laboratories, suggesting one of them may have been the origin point without providing any solid evidence.

The disappearance of Peng Shuai

Perhaps the controversy most likely to gain renewed attention is the mysterious disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.

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Peng, a three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion, was not seen publicly for over two weeks in November after she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault. She later denied making those allegations.

China’s explanations that Peng had been “resting at home” while insisting she is alive and well have been met with skepticism.

Read more: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s video call with IOC draws criticism, raises questions

So have statements by Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee president, that he had two video calls with Peng last month, which he said assured him she was safe. Yet he also acknowledged that Peng’s situation was “fragile.”

Critics have stressed that Peng may still be in danger even if she is being permitted to speak in controlled settings, with the incident shining a new light on China’s freedom of speech policies.

How has the IOC responded to China?

As the calls for a boycott grow louder, Bach has doubled down on the International Olympic Committee’s commitment to China and the Beijing Games, decrying critics of “rearing their ugly heads again.”

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The IOC president said on Thursday that in the two years leading up to the Beijing Games, he had seen “the dark clouds of the growing politicization of sport on the horizon.”

Bach has repeatedly defended his organization’s choice for the 2022 Olympics, saying the IOC is not a political body and its mandate is not to influence laws in sovereign states.

He also noted what he said were major commercial opportunities created by these Games which he expected would transform the global winter sports industry.

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Olympics could lead to new diplomatic approach

China has repeatedly stressed that foreign countries have no right to “interfere” in Chinese domestic affairs by criticizing the above issues.

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Experts say that while it’s still important to keep China’s controversies in the international conversation, the Olympics should be seen as an opportunity for the West to reassess its response.

“It’s the only way this conversation could result in something positive for both China and the world,” said Wenran Jiang, an advisor for the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy think tank in Toronto.

“Not only does the Chinese government not respond well to the West’s criticisms, but the Chinese people themselves get very angry, and they tune it out. So there needs to be another approach.”

Read more: Canadian government report accuses China of widespread campaign of espionage, manipulation

Jiang says that while abuses like those seen in Xinjiang and Hong Kong should “absolutely” be condemned, it’s still possible for the Olympics to be enjoyed while urging the Chinese government to improve.

“The Chinese people will ultimately decide what kind of society they want to live in, and what kind of human rights improvements they should have,” he said.

— with files from Saba Aziz, the Associated Press and Reuters

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