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New geopolitical fears surround 2022 Beijing Olympics

BEIJING (Axios): Global fears of China’s authoritarian rise are overshadowing the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Games and sparking calls for an Olympic boycott.

Why it matters: By openly flouting human rights norms while claiming leadership of the international system, China is cracking the foundation upon which global traditions such as the Olympics are based.

Democratic governments worry that allowing Beijing to host the Olympics without protest would further entrench China’s authoritarianism domestically and abroad.

The U.S. and its partners are also concerned about the rise of China as a rival amid a growing sense of democratic vulnerability, imbuing the 2022 Games with a new undercurrent of geopolitical fear.

Driving the news: A coalition of 180 rights groups have called for a traditional boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, citing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China.

But the White House said on Feb. 3 that the Biden administration did not have any plans to boycott or support moving them to another country.

The backdrop: The 2008 Beijing Summer Games were China’s first Olympics, and many Chinese people both at home and around the world felt an immense sense of pride and patriotism. That enthusiasm infused the Games with an unforgettable sense of joy and hope.

The entire country mobilized for the occasion, putting on stunning opening ceremonies and sparing no expense in the construction of new facilities.

Western democracies hoped the Olympics would mark a new era of democratic reform for China. And in the short run, it seemed to work, as China open its doors to the world in the months leading up to the Games, allowing journalists unusually easy access.

Yes, but: Human rights advocates criticized China in 2008, citing its repression in Tibet and its support of Sudan amid the genocide in Darfur.

During the torch relay before the Games began, Pro-Tibet activists organized protests at more than a dozen cities around the world, while the Chinese quietly helped organize counter-protests.

In a January 2008 column titled “China’s Genocide Olympics,” NYT’s Nicholas Kristof wrote that “in exchange for access to Sudanese oil, Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century.”

Now China is actually committing a genocide, not just abetting one. In January, the U.S. State Department determined the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing policies of mass internment and forced assimilation of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide.

But unlike other regimes that have committed genocide in recent decades, including Myanmar and Rwanda, China is the world’s second most powerful country and is on track to overtake the U.S. economy within a decade — giving its domestic policies substantial international resonance.

Beijing’s leaders use that heft to cow countries into silence, levying heavy costs on governments and organizations that are determined to protest against China, and manufacturing the appearance of global consent for its policies.

The bottom line: It’s harder than ever for an Olympic boycott to gain traction. And even if liberal democracies could organize one, such a response would highlight the fundamental paradox China’s global sway is creating:

Either participate on China’s terms, or withdraw and create smaller alternatives.

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