Lawmakers call on Olympic committee to press China on human rights abuses

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Bipartisan lawmakers are calling for the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to increase pressure on China to improve its human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, according to two letters obtained by The Hill.

The demand comes amid scrutiny over the wellbeing of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai, who was able to speak with IOC President Thomas Bach on Sunday. The international community has zeroed in on Peng amid concerns over whether the athlete is being held against her will after publicly accusing a former high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault nearly a month ago.

The Congressional-Executive Committee on China (CECC), a bipartisan committee focused on monitoring human rights in the country, said that while the IOC had earlier informed the committee it was not able to intervene on behalf of human rights in a country hosting the Olympics, Bach's phone call with Peng illustrated the IOC's ability to influence Beijing.

"Your video call with Peng shows that you can in fact use the power of your office to weigh in on a human rights concern inside China. It further shows that you, as IOC President, personally can cooperate with Chinese authorities to address a human rights concern," read a letter to Bach sent Wednesday.

"Therefore, we once again reiterate the request that you use the IOC's substantial leverage to demand that the Chinese government improve human rights prior to the start of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games."

The letter, which was signed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the CECC chairman, and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the co-chair, also called for Bach to set up a video call between Peng and journalists from independent media "in order to provide Peng an opportunity, should she choose of her own free will, to speak out over the censorship levied against her and her story by Chinese authorities."

The lawmakers sent another letter to the head of the IOC Athletes Commission, Emma Terho, calling for the executive to take a more active role in defending Peng and her rights in relations to her allegations of sexual assault.

Terho also participated in the Sunday call with Peng. Lawmakers raised concerns of the IOC's characterization of Peng's wellbeing.

"While we share the relief that the video call showed that she was alive, we question whether it is appropriate to conclude, based on a single remote video call, that a person who claimed to have been the victim of sexual assault is 'doing fine,'" they wrote.

Peng largely disappeared from public view after going public on Chinese social media with allegations of sexual assault against a former Chinese vice premier, raising concerns that she was quickly detained against her will.

Her allegations were deleted on social media, media coverage was censored and colleagues and human rights groups have said they are unable to verify the athlete's location and independence.

The video call held between Peng and the IOC president did little to quell international criticism. The Women's Tennis Association released a statement calling the video call "insufficient" to determine whether Peng is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own without coercion or external interference.

Peng's treatment has sharpened focus on how the international community is approaching the Winter Olympic Games, set to take place in February in Beijing.

The Olympic games are viewed as an economic, political and diplomatic boon for China. Critics have called for the games to be moved, saying it unfairly benefits an autocratic government that is carrying out human rights abuses with impunity.

But international governments, including the U.S., have yet to detail how they will approach participating in the Beijing Olympics amid China's human rights record.

President Biden has sought a balanced approach to the relationship with Beijing, which he describes as the greatest geopolitical challenge facing the U.S. and the world of the 21st century.

The administration has underscored that it does not seek conflict with Beijing. However, it intends to pursue vigorous competition and cooperation on issues of global concern and influence, such as nuclear nonproliferation and addressing climate change.

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