China will regret weaponizing sports

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·5 min read
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  • Xi Jinping
    Xi Jinping
    General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and paramount leader of China
China's Peng Shuai makes a forehand return
China's Peng Shuai makes a forehand return


The approaching Beijing Winter Olympics - the most divisive games since the 1936 Berlin Olympics - face several challenges: Boycott calls in the West; a Muslim gulag with more than one million detainees in Xinjiang; the new omicron variant of COVID-19; and a silenced #MeToo accuser, Peng Shuai, who is China's top tennis player. No wonder Beijing is lobbying U.S. businesses, warning that they cannot expect to make money in China if they stay silent.

The calls for a coordinated boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics (labeled by critics the "Genocide Games") raise the question of whether such action can help influence China's behavior under a president whose record in power is increasingly drawing comparisons to the past century's most brutal rulers.

Robert O'Brien, national security adviser to then-President Trump, last year equated Xi Jinping to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname "Xitler." Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China's founder left unfinished.

Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century's top butcher. Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China's constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi, like Mao, is reverently referred to as renmin lingxiu, or "people's leader."

China's new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics.

Under Xi, China has emerged as a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues "wolf warrior" tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive U.S. administrations have described as genocide Xi's Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period.

The international costs of Xi's despotism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating pandemic. Two years on, the world still does not know whether COVID-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan. What is apparent, though, is that Xi's regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.

More ominously, a massive cover-up in China to obscure the genesis of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterizing them as "origin-tracing terrorism," and instead peddled conspiracy theories.

Thanks to Xi's scofflaw actions, China's global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. According to a global survey, unfavorable views of China are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.

But instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his renegade actions, as underscored by China's stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing's success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, risk is growing that Xi's expansionism could make Taiwan its next target.

Beijing will have the honor of becoming the world's first city to host both a summer and winter Olympics. But since the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the human rights situation in China has worsened, with Xi establishing a techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security has overtaken the country's massive military budget. An increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing.

It was in 2015 that Beijing defeated Almaty (Kazakhstan) to win the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Just in the period since 2015, China, among other things, has established forward military bases on human-made islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang gulag, militarized the Himalayan borderlands, weaponized debt and gobbled up Hong Kong.

The world must not turn a blind eye to such actions, which thus far have not invited any meaningful Western sanctions. Xi has only been emboldened by the fact that his draconian, expansionist actions have essentially been cost-free.

Just as other powers' appeasement emboldened Hitler's expansionism, leading to World War II, the international failure to impose tangible costs for Chinese aggression is likely to beget more aggression. Indeed, the present business-as-usual approach to China is tantamount to appeasement.

If the Beijing Winter Olympics were held without any censure of the Xi regime, it would be an insult to every Uyghur, every Tibetan, every jailed Hong Kong democracy activist and every imprisoned Chinese political dissident. A boycott-free Games that wrap up smoothly would only encourage Xi to embark on fresh repression and expansionism.

Make no mistake: If Xi's China stays on its present path, open conflict with the West and with its neighbors, from Japan to India, would become inevitable.

For the CCP, sports and politics have long been inseparable. From its boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne (Australia) to its more recent bullying tactics against the N.B.A., England's Premier League and others, the party has treated sports as politics by other means. It has used threats of withdrawing lucrative sports contracts, broadcast deals and sponsorship opportunities to buy silence on its human rights record.

When China can wield sports as a political weapon, is there any reason why democratic powers should avoid giving it a taste of its own medicine to help put the CCP on notice? A coordinated boycott of the Games would convey to the Chinese people that the CCP's rogue actions risk isolating China.

Harmonized action on the Games, even if largely symbolic, could serve as a first step toward galvanizing a larger international movement against Xi's regime, if not triggering a "boycott China" movement along the lines of the sustained global boycott that helped end the apartheid system in South Africa.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning "Water: Asia's New Battleground" (Georgetown University Press).

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