Governments Must Respond to Beijing’s Sportswashing

Protest and counter-Protest in 2008; cc Flickr Peter M, modified,

This month, the Chinese government will employ one of the world’s biggest platforms as it uses its propaganda outlets to ‘sportswash’ its human rights violations across the country.  This sportswashing was on full display in 2008; now, fourteen years later, China is again attempting to use the Olympics to improve its global image, capitalizing on the prestige and public interest of sport to gloss over its dreadful human rights record.

Just a couple of months ago, the sporting arena provided a stark example of how far the Chinese government will go to smother critical voices and curate its public image. The government’s blatant muzzling of tennis athlete Peng Shuai, following her allegations of sexual abuse by a retired high-ranking Chinese official, garnered global attention and public outcry. Most notably, the Women’s Tennis Association pulled its business from China, calling for investigations into Peng’s allegations.

The inherently public nature of professional sporting events, especially the Olympic Games, which markets itself as “building a peaceful and better world”, can and should serve as a time to call out governments for their violations. Rather than an opportunity for Beijing sportswashing, the Olympics must be a time to build international pressure on the Chinese authorities to end the arbitrary mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and the crushing of free expression across the country.

The Biden Administration, in conjunction with governments across the world, should take February and March, Beijing’s moment for opening ceremony and competition fireworks, to demand an end to mass censorship in China and to call for the immediate release of China’s prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International has highlighted five individual cases that make apparent the scope and scale of repression, which ranges from the targeting of minority groups and systematic control of the media, to a pernicious system of surveillance, intimidation, and harassment.

The Chinese government is exercising ever-tightening control over what Chinese citizens can see of the world and what they can say about it.  Across mainland China, the ‘great firewall’ has long blocked access to vast segments of online content, making it difficult to access news or social media from non-Chinese companies. Chinese social media sites, most prominently WeChat and Weibo, are heavily censored, with an army of government-deployed bots and paid workers assessing what, when and how to deal with anything that surfaces online in contrast to Beijing’s desired social and cultural image. Obvious trigger points for the Chinese government, ranging from its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, are not permitted online. Those who seek to call attention to these topics face harassment and prosecution. Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer and citizen journalist, is currently imprisoned for publicizing information about the virus during the initial Wuhan outbreak. She posted on social media about how government officials had detained independent reporters and harassed families of Covid-19 patients. Now on a partial hunger strike in prison, her family members worry she may die in custody for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression. Others see cases like hers and learn to self-censor.

Increasingly stark parallels in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region raise renewed cause for global concern [and watchfulness]— that a vibrant civil society and pluralistic academic sphere can deteriorate within the span of a year. Since the passage of the June 2020 National Security Law (NSL), Hong Kongers across many sectors have faced the constant threat of arbitrary prosecution. The law serves as a legal excuse— a legitimizing mechanism— to broadly target perceived political dissidents and to criminalize free expression and peaceful protest.

Hong Kong rang in 2022 with tidings of media outlet closure. Authorities arrested Stand News’ senior leadership for supposedly violating a ‘seditious publication’ law. This comes on the heels of Amnesty International’s own Hong Kong office closures, citing the NSL as fundamental to its decision: the law makes it “effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government.”

With the Olympics serving as an international forum to ‘bring people together’ and highlight ‘interconnectedness’, it is fitting to highlight the interconnected nature of China’s human rights violations. Deputy Chief of Staff of Xinjiang’s Police force, Peng Jingtang, was recently appointed to lead the People Liberation’s Army’s Hong Kong garrison. The crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims stand out in their scale and cruelty.  And yet, the underpinnings of mass censorship and surveillance—the tools and mechanisms that enable other violations to proliferate—are replicated from Xinjiang, to Tibet, across the mainland, and increasingly to Hong Kong. One can only hope that atrocities witnessed across Xinjiang will never be replicated elsewhere. But the reality is, until international bodies hold the Chinese government accountable for these rights violations, PRC officials will not be deterred from expanding their crackdown. February 4th should be a day for a massive deterrence campaign. The international community can use the opening ceremonies for opening conversations; challenge Beijing for its mass censorship. Remind the Chinese government that attempts to sportswash are a losing game.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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