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At Beijing Olympics, China & IOC Accused of “Sportswashing” Amid Uyghur Abuses, Peng Shuai Censorship

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Human rights advocates say renewed international attention for China during the Winter Olympics should focus on rampant human rights violations occurring across the country. It is incumbent upon the International Olympic Committee to deny countries the bid to host if they violate their citizens’ human rights, says Jules Boykoff, author and former member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team. While many have commended China’s “zero-COVID policy,” the emphasis on keeping infection rates low is distracting from other kinds of suffering, adds Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

The 2022 Winter Olympics are underway in Beijing, China. Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks Friday, the opening day, as the United States diplomatically boycotts the games along with Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden, among other countries, including New Zealand.

Human rights groups accuse China of turning the Olympics into a “sportswashing” event and have condemned China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims. During Friday’s opening ceremonies, one of the Olympic torchbearers China selected was a Uyghur cross-country skier. After finishing 43rd in her Olympic debut the next day, she was kept away from reporters.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was asked about the IOC’s message to China’s oppressed Uyghur population, insisted he would not comment on political issues.

THOMAS BACH: If at the end you would have Olympic Games that are only between national Olympic committees whose governments agree on every political situation, the games would lose their universality. And with their universality, they would lose their mission. And that would lead to the end of the Olympic Games. Now, the mission, if we cannot accomplish our mission to bringing the world together, then we are at great — at great risk.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bach said he met this weekend with the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared after she made sexual assault allegations against a former high-ranking member of China’s ruling Communist Party. But the IOC has said it can’t say if there should be an investigation of her allegations. They said she at this point didn’t call for that. Peng Shuai spoke Sunday in what the Associated Press called a “controlled interview” in Beijing with French sports newspaper L’Équipe, where she denied the allegations as a Chinese Olympic Committee official looked on, and said she’s retiring from tennis competition. This comes as human rights advocates say the International Olympic Committee should do more to support athletes speaking out against human rights violations.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Jules Boykoff is a former member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team, author of five books on the Olympics, including Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, his latest piece for Jacobin headlined “The Beijing Winter Olympics Are a Political Disaster.” Also with us, Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

And we welcome you to Democracy Now! Yaqiu, let’s begin with you. Talk about the Olympics and how they’re playing out right now, this latest story that has dominated — not inside China at all — Peng Shuai, who made these allegations against a high-level Chinese government — a former Chinese government official of sexual assault, and then it just disappeared from the Chinese internet, and she says she’s been completely misunderstood and is retiring from tennis. Talk about that and then, overall, the Olympics playing out in China now.

YAQIU WANG: Well, I mean, I kind of expected this to happen again, because the IOC said we were going to have our dinner, I mean, you know, now the dinner happened, and then it’s the same old thing: You know, “The post was misunderstood. I was fine. I was free.” So, I expected that to happen.

I have to emphasize that she is still completely wiped out from the Chinese internet. You know, you cannot know anything what she said recently. If you search the Chinese internet, anything about her was before she made the social media post. So, she’s still a censored topic inside of China. So, it really says, you know, whether the Chinese government is really allowing people to talk freely about this case. You know, I think we can assume that everything is still very controlled. So, that’s about her.

I mean, in terms of the Olympics, you know, now the athletes are playing. There are propaganda about the athletes. But if you criticize the government, you know, you can still be censored or harassed. And if you say something online, you can be — your public post can be removed, and your account can be suspended. So, there are a lot of propaganda: “Everything’s great. Look how beautiful everything is.” Then there are a lot of censorship going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff, your piece for Jacobin, “The Beijing Winter Olympics Are a Political Disaster.” Why?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, the Beijing Winter Olympics are a hotbed of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is flying in every direction. When we just listened to the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach cling desperately to the notion of political neutrality, it definitely brings to mind the great Desmond Tutu, who once said that if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. And it’s not just that that the International Olympic Committee is clinging to in terms of its own hypocrisy. It committed the original sin here in handing the Olympics to an obvious human rights violator, despite the lofty principles of its charter about human dignity.

But it doesn’t end with the International Olympic Committee. China itself has been hypocritical in these Olympic Games. They, too, like the International Olympic Committee, have been saying, “We need to keep politics out of the Olympics.” But it wasn’t that many years back when China itself was boycotting the Olympics. They did in 1980, the Moscow Games, because of the invasion of the Soviets in Afghanistan. They also boycotted the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

And finally, the United States is quite hypocritical in this instance, as well. The Biden administration has carried out a diplomatic boycott against China and these Olympic Games, joined by a very few number of countries, I might add. But many people are looking at the United States waggling its finger China, and saying, “Hey, what about of Abu Zubaydah in Guantánamo Bay, tortured time and time again, waterboarded time and time again? What about those kids in cages at the border? What about the unquestioning support for Israel as they carry out an apartheid system against Palestinians? And while my friends over at Human Rights Watch and other places would rightly point to the fact that what’s happening in China is quite different right now — we’re seeing actual crimes against humanity happening as defined in the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court — the rest of the world is definitely seeing some hypocrisy from the United States.

And so, we’re definitely seeing with these Olympics that sports are more than sports, and the Beijing Games are a stark reminder of that.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also pointed out, Jules Boykoff, in your pieces, the right-wing resistance against the games, going as far as stoking a kind of cold war with China.

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Many on the left are concerned that criticizing the Beijing 2022 Olympics on human rights grounds and other grounds risks opening up a Pandora’s box of anti-Asian hate, as well as the possibility of greenlighting war. After all, we’ve witnessed a bipartisan effort to gin up a new cold war with China. And unfortunately, war is a force that gives much of the U.S. political class meaning. We saw this at the end of 2021, when the U.S. Congress passed this whopping $770 billion defense bill, that had $24 billion more than Biden even asked for. And many pundits across the political spectrum pointed out that it was the rising power of China that necessitated this massive bill, including that extra $24 billion. And so, what we’re seeing right now with the Beijing Olympics is that they’re arriving at a time of heightened tensions between China and the West, including the United States, and it could well push in the wrong direction of war in this instance, which is exactly what the world doesn’t need right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the Olympics are taking place during this pandemic. Yaqiu Wang, how is China dealing with this? I mean, the disparate numbers are amazing. We are recognizing 900,000 people died of COVID in the United States, with a population, what, a quarter of China. They’re saying like 8,000 people died. They’ve got four times more people in China. That disparity, even if it’s an underestimate, is astounding. Can you talk about COVID and the pandemic in China, and also how China and the athletes are being protected now?

YAQIU WANG: Well, I think it’s a fact that China has low infection rates, and the people are not dying from COVID. But I have to say, you know, the draconian controlling measures are making people suffering in other ways. You know, the Chinese government has made a zero infection rate a goal in itself. You can die from other issues, but don’t die from the COVID, because my — you know, as an official, my performance will be judged by how many people get infected. So there are stories, like a woman who’s eight months pregnant, she could not be admitted to the hospital because she didn’t have a negative COVID test result, so she lost her baby as a result. And people are dying from heart attacks because they couldn’t be admitted to the hospitals because they don’t have a COVID-negative result. So, while it’s good that the infection rates are low, that people are not dying from COVID, but people are suffering from other things.

I have to mention that, you know, the policies — you know, some people think it’s a good policy. But the people don’t actually have a say in how the COVID policy is being carried out, whether they agree with it or not. It’s a top-down thing implemented by the government, that people have no choice. And if you speak critically of the government’s COVID policy, you can be censored, or you can be harassed. You can be thrown into prison. So, we have to keep that in mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, final comment, Jules Boykoff, on how the media is covering these Olympics around the world?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, one thing that they are covering is the athlete dissent about these Olympic Games. There’s been a lot of consternation from athletes that have been put in quarantine, that have been unpleased with the kind of food that they’ve been getting and unpleased with the very system of testing. You see numerous athletes have their Olympic dreams scuppered on the shoals of COVID here. And, you know, it’s important to note, I think, in terms of wider context, that we’re seeing a rise of Olympic athletes speaking out for justice around the world.

The International Olympic Committee and its corporate partners trade on the popularity and esteem of Olympians, but athletes don’t get the enormous profits that the International Olympic Committee enjoys. In fact, one important contextual study that I think we should all be having in the backs of our minds as we watch these athletes on our screens is that, according to one study, Olympic athletes do not receive their fair share of the money pie. They compared the National Basketball Association, the English Premier League of football, and other major sports leagues, where athletes there receive around 45 to 60% of the revenues. With the Olympic athletes, it’s only 4.1% of the revenues. So, Olympians are what make the Olympics special, and yet they’re getting shortchanged when it comes to the money shuffle with the Olympic Games.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Jules Boykoff, author of five books on the politics of the Olympics, former professional athlete himself, former member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team, and Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Next up, the National Football League is run “like a plantation.” That’s the charge levied by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. He has filed a racial discrimination class-action lawsuit against the league. Seventy percent of NFL players are Black. All of the team owners are white. We’ll speak to former NFL player Donté Stallworth. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Is It Because I’m Black” by the legendary Chicago soul singer Syl Johnson. He died Sunday at the age of 85, just days after his brother, the blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson, died at 93.

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Is the NFL Run Like a Plantation? Ex-Player Donté Stallworth Responds to Bombshell Racism Lawsuit

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