NBC broadcasters drew attention to Chinese human rights abuses during the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, but took a both-sides approach, casting the Uyghur genocide and other atrocities as the subject of “allegations” leveled by the U.S. rather than as well-established facts.
During a discussion with broadcaster Mike Tirico and two China experts NBC tapped to help lead its political coverage of the Olympics, Savannah Guthrie noted that “some have said there’s a cloud over these Olympics, that China has come under fire globally because of policies and practices.”
She noted the U.S. is undertaking a diplomatic boycott of the Games because of human rights, “in particular China’s treatment of the minority Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region” which she said the U.S. “has come right out” and labeled a “genocide.”
Journalist Andy Browne, one of NBC’s China experts, called it “the most sensitive issue” of the Olympics and said only that Western governments and human rights groups “allege” that the Chinese government is engaged in the systematic repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“They allege that this is a massive program of social engineering aimed at suppressing Muslim Uyghur culture, language, tradition, identity,” he added. “They allege a host of human rights abuses, forced labor, coercive birth control practices, indoctrination and that all this adds up to a form of cultural genocide.”
He adds: “It has to be said that the Chinese government emphatically denies all of this. They say that accusations of genocide are the lie of the century.”
Browne’s presentation of China’s denial prompted Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin to criticize NBC for taking a “both-sides” approach to human-rights abuses.
The broadcasters painted China’s well-documented human rights abuses as mere allegations put forward by a geopolitical rival.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said months ago that the U.S. government delegation will boycott the Olympic Games over the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, including the presumed suppression of tennis star Peng Shuai.
“The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses. The athletes on team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games,” Psaki said at the time.
During the opening ceremony, China orchestrated a traditional entrance of a national flag involving a group of people meant to represent China’s 56 ethnic groups.
“This is an effort to show they are all united under the Chinese flag,” Guthrie said, adding that China is “looking to demonstrate diversity.”
She noted there are “obviously deep tensions and concerns under the surface here” before asking Browne to weigh in.
“This is a national ritual meant to show that China’s ethnic groups live together as one big happy family, but as we discussed earlier, the Biden administration cited ongoing human rights abuses by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs, one of China’s ethnic minorities, as reasons for the diplomatic boycott,” he said, adding that the White House “did not want to contribute to the fanfare of the games such as this.”
Just 150 of the 224 U.S. athletes walked in the Opening Ceremony, according to Rogin, though it is unclear who among those athletes may have been boycotting the ceremony.
Later in the ceremony, Tirico called the teams from Taiwan and Hong Kong “two delegations significant in Chinese policy and geopolitics.”
Tirico went on to explain that Taiwan in known as Chinese Taipei at the Olympics due to a “compromise brokered by the IOC four decades ago, since the Chinese Communist Party took power 73 years ago.”
“Relations between these neighbors is strained,” he added. “Taiwan, which remains self-governed and enjoys U.S. support, has seen increased Chinese military activity off its coast, raising global concerns about a conflict.”
Jing Tsu, a professor of East Asian studies and comparative literature at Yale University whom NBC brought on as a China expert, added, “What complicates the picture here, Mike, is the U.S.’s role. Former President Carter terminated diplomatic recognition and the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1978. The Congress voted to maintain an informal relationship through the 1979 Relations Act, which is the arrangement to this day.”
Tirico then explained Hong Kong and China’s “one country, two systems” principle, adding: “If you follow the news, you know the recent crackdowns against pro-democracy forces and the press have eroded freedoms and significantly increased tensions.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was in attendance at the Opening Ceremony as the West has sounded alarms that Russia could invade Ukraine soon.
When Ukraine’s athletes walked in the Opening Ceremony, Guthrie noted their thoughts were “surely not far from the unfolding situation at home for them.”
“Vladimir Putin, who is here tonight, certainly has the world watching,” she added. “Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine. U.S. officials have threatened severe sanctions if Russia makes a move.”
“There’s some precedent — unfortunately in 2014, as the games of Sochi were underway, Russia moved to occupy the Crimea in Ukraine,” she said.
Browne added: “The big question: will Putin invade Ukraine during the Olympics? He sent troops into Georgia during the 2008 games, but while [Chinese President Xi Jinping] supports Putin’s goals in Ukraine, he won’t be happy if his Winter Olympics are upstaged by Russian tanks and missiles.”
Guthrie later added that Putin is the “subject of intense speculation at this moment … regarding just what his intentions are in Ukraine.”
Browne said Xi and Putin are “both authoritarians” who hope to “restore their countries to greatness.”
“And they’ve been brought together by a common adversary that they believe stands in their way, the United States,” he added.
China had two athletes, including one it said was of Uyghur heritage, deliver the flame to the Olympic cauldron to kickstart the games at the close of the ceremony.
Guthrie called the decision to select Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier who China says has Uyghur roots, an “in-your-face response to those Western nations, including the U.S., who have called this Chinese treatment of that group genocide and diplomatically boycotted these games.”
The broadcast comes one day after Chinese political cartoonist and activist Badiucao accused NBC of platforming “propaganda” from the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee to “balance the view,” including Beijing’s denial of the Uyghur genocide and the IOC’s denial of Olympic app security issues.
He said NBC News completely removed the part of his story about how the Chinese government has censored him and threatened him and his family “just for being an artist.”
IOC president Thomas Bach failed to express concern about the Uyghur genocide when asked for his message to the Uyghur people during a pre-Games news conference on Thursday.
“And with regard to… the Uyghur population, the the position of the IOC must be, given the political neutrality, that we’re not commenting on political issues,” he said.
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This article has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Andy Browne’s name. An earlier version of this article referred to him as “Brown.” We regret the error.