Red Lines, Finish Lines, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Twelve months from now, two thousand athletes representing almost 100 countries are slated to march under their national flags into Beijing National Stadium to mark the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Beijing National Stadium—the Bird’s Nest—was the focal point of the 2008 Summer Games and hosted that year’s opening ceremony, an awe-inducing tribute to Chinese civilization. The opening ceremony and the Games on the whole served as a coming out party for the new China. Past the famines, the denunciations, and the crackdowns, the People’s Republic of the 21st century appeared ready to play nice.

But in the intervening decade, China has dashed Western hopes of harmonious coexistence. Xi Jinping’s PRC is one that is intent upon flexing its political muscles and countering the liberal order. The one-world, kumbaya moment we all shared watching Beijing 2008 was a mirage. And in light of the new great power struggle taking shape, the 2022 Games carry more geopolitical importance than any Olympiad since the Cold War.

China’s recent rap sheet

China’s turn under Xi Jinping has become more pronounced each year. The PRC is engaged in a litany of offenses to the global conscience.

A year plus into the COVID-19 pandemic, the PRC continues to deflect responsibility for the outbreak and to suppress inquiry into the virus’s origins. In January of last year, as the virus ravaged Wuhan, state authorities maligned Dr. Li Wenliang for sounding the alarm on the pathogen. Li later died of the virus himself and in an extraordinarily callous triangulation, even by the standards of the Chinese Communist Party, the state now hails the martyred doctor a hero. That hasn’t stopped it, however, from jailing journalist Zhang Zhan for her investigation of what occurred in the pandemic’s early stages. She remains detained after 9 months on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Meanwhile, China intensified its evisceration of Hong Kong’s liberties in 2020, chucking to the rubbish heap after just twenty-three years the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was meant to guarantee Hong Kongers semi-autonomy for fifty.

China’s aggressive expansion into the South China Sea and its intimidating behavior over the Taiwan Strait have also tracked upward. Chinese vessels now harass the Vietnamese fishing fleet and Malaysian petroleum drillers hundreds of miles from China’s shores. More ominously still, on September 18 and 19 the People’s Liberation Army deployed 40 fighter jets and bombers across the Strait’s median line that divides Taiwan from the mainland in an unprecedented show of force, ostensibly in response to Taiwan’s growing reciprocity with the United States.

And, most significantly, the PRC remains openly committed to a campaign of cultural cleansing against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the country’s northwest—a process it describes as preventive de-radicalization. The latest accounts from the region, as reported by the BBC, are that guards are systematically raping imprisoned women.

A warning from the politburo

New Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in somewhat of a surprise, expressed that he agrees with his predecessor Mike Pompeo’s assessment that the PRC is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate.

In the wake of Blinken’s declaration, politburo member Yang Jiechi issued a statement warning the incoming American administration not to cross China’s “national dignity” red lines by commenting on its internal and territorial affairs.

“The United States should stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, which all matter to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and stop attempts to hold back China’s development by meddling in China’s internal affairs. History and reality have shown time and again that these issues concern China’s core interests, national dignity, as well as the sentiments of its 1.4 billion people. They constitute a redline that must not be crossed. Any trespassing would end up undermining China-U.S. relations and the United States’ own interests. We in China hope that the U.S. side will fully understand the sensitivity of these issues and handle them with prudence, so as to avoid disruption or damage to mutual trust and cooperation.”

The Olympics are an exercise in prestige-building, and one at which China has already shown an ability to excel. The Games’ ceremonies are inherently political and always have been, enabling the host to broadcast its preferred narrative onto screens in hundreds of millions of homes across the world. Sending American athletes to smile and wave under the Star and Stripes from Beijing (and Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, the remote sites hosting mountain events) would represent a tacit compliance with the red line policy expressed by Yang. It would admit that for all the West talks about norms and human rights, we’re willing to overlook violations thereof when our psychological comfort, entertainment, and dollars are at stake. 

While such an allusion flirts with Godwin’s law, we risk in 2022 repeating the spectacle of 1936, when we gave a resurgent, expansionist power in the early stages of a genocide the ultimate propaganda platform. China is (probably) not three years from launching a world war, but its list of transgressions taken together resolves any remaining disagreement over its willingness to melt into the pot of global liberal norms. U.S. participation in Beijing next year would facilitate China’s sharp power strategy, validate the Communist Party’s authoritarian framework, and confirm its belief in our decadence.

Lessons from 1980

Unlike some other countries, the U.S. government is not the direct authority over American Olympic teams. That role is held by the U.S. Olympic Committee, a private, not-for-profit entity. Nevertheless, the U.S. government wields significant sway over the committee. The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games offers an instructive precedent.

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter and NATO allies universally condemned the action and demanded a reversal. When the Soviets refused to pull out by March of 1980, President Carter, West German diplomat Rolf Pauls, and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov led an international campaign to snub the Soviets at the Olympic Games to be held later that year in Moscow.*

According to the U.S. State Department’s history of the affair, the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution supporting the Carter boycott with a vote of 386 in favor and 12 opposed; the Senate passed a similarly lopsided measure. With the moral force of the presidency and near unanimity from Congress, the Olympic Committee announced it would keep American athletes home.

Carter initiated the boycott with a heavy heart and without unified opinion among his advisors. CIA Director Stansfield Turner had advised the president that a boycott could backfire, with allied support uncertain.

All of Turner’s concerns apply to today’s situation with as much plausibility. “The Soviets,” he cautioned, “would also be able to play the role of an aggrieved party before a partially sympathetic international audience and to utilize international disagreements over the boycott to exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and non-boycotting (or reluctantly boycotting) states, probably including some close U.S. allies.”

If President Biden and Congress undertake a boycott, garnering support from our critical allies contra China—Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and Japan—is essential. The primary risk of announcing a boycott in 2022 is that we might fail to construct a resounding, values-based coalition. That’s what ultimately happened in 1980.

While many U.S. allies joined Carter’s stand—including West Germany, Japan, Canada, Turkey, South Korea, Israel, and Norway—certain critical partners were not among them, most notably, the British. Seven European countries—France, Italy, Netherland, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and San Marino—participated in the Games, but did not take part in the opening ceremony. Additionally, Australia, Denmark, and Ireland sent athletes to the Games, but had them compete under the Olympic flag, rather than their national flags.

In the event, the 1980 boycott was haphazard and lackluster. Biden, however, has a number of advantages over Carter in 1980: China today has fewer clients states than the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War (particularly among winter sports powers), China is also moving rapidly toward a threatening orientation rather than being a long-standing rival to whom the international community has grown accustomed, and, most importantly, Biden has a full year to gauge our allies and build their support.

Even a successful boycott from a political standpoint, though, would have a clear drawback: the blow it would deal to the hundreds of American and boycotting coalition athletes whose careers are built on four-year training cycles. One can’t help but feel compassion for them—young, peaking, and singularly-focused as they are.

As documented by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes in his 2010 book “Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War,” American athletes expressed dismay at the Carter decision and challenged its wisdom, in characteristically sporting terms. “The only way to compete against Moscow,” said Al Oerter, a four-time gold medalist in the discus, “is to stuff it down their throats in their own backyard.” Bitter memories of political crossfire still haunt many of those athletes; their commitment to excellence was rendered moot through no fault of their own. And that’s tragic.

Dick Pound, a long-time Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, has already spoken against a 2022 boycott, arguing that boycotts are contrary to the very spirit the Games aim to forge, a spirit of transcending differences, and are ineffective in nudging governments towards better behavior anyway. “It does not change the conduct,” Pound claims, “so why would we sacrifice our athletes and their dreams in a gesture that we know will have no impact whatsoever?”

Another force that will quietly work to ensure Beijing 2022 goes to plan is that of the broadcasting and advertising industry. The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games generated $940 million in advertising revenue for NBC, the sole Olympics broadcaster in the United States. NBC’s $7.75 billion dollar contract with the International Olympic Committee runs through 2032. And though the Summer Olympics are the cash cow (Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Summer Games brought in 28 percent more revenue than Pyeongchang), adding close to a billion dollars in advertising sales every fourth winter is a key component of NBC’s business plan.

While the Beijing 2022 enterprise is first and foremost a Chinese affair (its official partners are domestic companies like Bank of China, Anta, and Sinopec), the IOC has a roster of global business bluebloods that it calls Worldwide Olympic Partners. That group includes Visa, Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, P&G, and Intel from the U.S. (plus outlier Airbnb), and companies like Toyota and Allianz from other countries that would be important to any boycott effort. Emblematic of the awkward thread that runs through all business relations with China, these companies stand to reap financial rewards from the awareness bump the Games would give their products and services among China’s growing consumer class—if they keep quiet.

Airbnb stands out among the Worldwide Olympic Partners as the lone recent Silicon Valley upstart, but its China plans make it as unlikely as the others to voice opposition to Beijing 2022. In the S-1 filing Airbnb made with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November of 2020 it revealed the extent to which expansion into China is integral to its strategy. According to the S-1, Airbnb has “invested heavily” to expand its China operations, particularly since 2019. As has been widely documented, including here at the Lincoln Network, investing in China means accepting the terms of China’s ruling party.

Joe Biden is on the clock

Diplomatic hurdles, athletic ambition, and the ever-powerful dollar create headwinds against a boycott, but perhaps Beijing is not the only option for elite winter sport competition in 2022. In fact, a group of Senate Republicans has introduced a resolution in support of moving the Games.

With one year of lead time, an alternative that draws the athletes and flags from the world’s liberal democracies may be viable. Can we ride the wave of momentum from the upcoming (re-scheduled) Tokyo Summer Games and fire up the chairlifts at Nagano? While that particular option may be far-fetched, in the age of COVID, impromptu arrangements are commonplace, like the NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando to close out its 2019-2020 season. Planning such an alternative forthwith would both do justice to the athletes who deserve to compete on the global stage and deliver the sharpest rebuke to China’s ruling party. It might even allow the broadcasters and advertisers to recoup some of their investments.

A Carter administration effort to organize an alternative fizzled, but, again, President Carter had less time, a less nimble logistics industry, and less unified international opinion than President Biden has today. Furthermore, this is a golden opportunity for the Biden administration to re-establish American soft power in the face of China’s sharp power strategy, particularly with NATO allies on the continent who felt marginalized by the previous administration. By boycotting the Games and organizing an alternative, Biden would honor the values that unite the world’s liberal democracies and would grant standing to the oppressed of Xinjiang, the silenced majority in Hong Kong, and the threatened peoples that inhabit China’s periphery. It would communicate indisputably that while the U.S. may be willing to coordinate with China where mutual interest lies, it will not bow to CCP demands for quiescence on the matters of liberty that constitute our political order.

Forty years ago, a Democratic president made a difficult political choice in the face of an intransigent ideological foe. “It seemed absolutely wrong to me,” legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell remarked on the 1980 affair, “to let them use our athletes and our technological capabilities to broadcast their perverse propaganda to every corner of the globe—and I’ll always admire President Carter for having the guts to spoil their party.”

Will President Biden show the same commitment in the lead up to Beijing 2022?

* In an interesting twist, Carter’s ultimatum played out alongside the 1980 Winter Olympics hosted by the U.S. in Lake Placid, New York. It was in Lake Placid that the plucky American hockey team defeated the vaunted Soviet machine en route to a gold medal.

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