China’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony on February 4 marked the start of the 17-day competition, with some significant figures missing.
Crowds for the spectacle in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium were smaller than usual due to the ongoing health pandemic, but many high-profile heads of government also chose not to attend.
In December, US President Joe Biden announced a diplomatic boycott that meant no US officials would be present at the Games due to “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang", said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Lithuania, the UK and New Zealand swiftly followed suit.
Many athletes were also expected to miss the opening ceremony to show solidarity with victims of human rights abuses in China, including Hong Kongers, Tibetans and, in particular, millions of Uighurs in the Xinjiang region who have been subject to “detention, torture and forced labour”, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
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“The spectacle of the Olympics cannot cover up genocide,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uighur Human Rights Project. “It’s hard to understand why anyone feels it’s even possible to celebrate international friendship and ‘Olympic values’ in Beijing this year.”
Reputations at risk for sponsors
While governments and even athletes are giving the games a wide berth, corporate sponsors – many of which are based in the West – have found themselves at an impasse.
Companies including Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Atos, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Intel, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Toyota and Visa have paid a combined $1 billion to help fund the 2022 Winter Games, despite widely reported ethical issues.
“Once they committed to sponsoring the Olympics, they committed themselves to walking an ethical tightrope,” Andrew Crane, professor of business and society at the University of Bath, told FRANCE 24. “There are risks either way.”
On one hand, criticising China’s human rights record means potential exclusion from the world’s largest consumer economy.
On the other, saying nothing means “being associated with an Olympic Games held in the midst of a genocide” as the US Congressional Executive Commission on China pointed out to representatives from six corporate sponsors of the Winter Olympics in July 2021.
“If they take a stand on human rights in China, they risk making their Chinese customers angry. If they don’t, they make their European and American customers angry. It will hurt their reputation one way or the other,” Guido Palazzo, professor of business ethics at the University of Lausanne, said to FRANCE 24.
Although the Games are happening in the Chinese capital Beijing, the northwestern region of Xinjiang is at the heart of the ethical debate.
Snow-covered and mountainous, Xinjiang is an emerging winter sports destination – an image China has been keen to cultivate in the run-up to the Games.
It is also a hub for foreign companies, with a Coca-Cola bottling plant and operation centres for Intel, Tesla and Volkswagen among other international brands.
But Xinjiang most often appears in international headlines due to what the Chinese government calls “vocational education and training centres” detaining an estimated 1 million members of the Uighur population.
Although the Winter Olympics lasts for just 17 days, the spotlight on companies that operate in this region may tarnish their reputation well into the future, said Palazzo. “The long-term risks are related to the presence of companies in China,” he says. “Do they operate in regions where some of the most problematic human rights situations exist? How do they behave in those regions?”
“Companies that operate in Xinjiang province and who have forced labour of Uighurs in their own operations or their supply chain will be in real trouble.”
In the run-up to the Games, some companies took steps to distance themselves from the Xinjiang region in particular. In December, Olympic sponsor Intel sent a letter asking suppliers to “ensure that its supply chain does not use any labour or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region” due to restrictions imposed by “multiple governments”.
When the letter was made public, it sparked calls on Chinese social media to boycott the company, and Intel quickly issued an apology.
Others have doubled down on a commitment to doing business in Xinjiang. US snowboard company Burton designed the uniforms for the US Olympic snowboard team and expects to expand existing operations in Xinjiang as China becomes one of the world’s largest winter sports destinations.
“We’ll focus on what we can change for the better,” Chief Executive Craig Smith said in an interview with the BBC, adding that the approach to the region focused on “sharing the fun of snowboarding”.
Sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and Procter & Gamble are simply downplaying their connection to the Winter Games in countries such as the US.
Coca-Cola has sponsored every edition of the Olympics since 1928, but this winter, products such as limited-edition Olympic Coke cans, which would normally go on sale around the world, will only be released in China. The company is also not sending its CEO or other business leaders to the Games.
Pressure to act?
Crane says the Winter Olympics are now “too fraught” for corporations to find a solution that appeases both China and the West.
In such a polarised context, where even staying silent poses a risk, there is perhaps an opening for companies to provide what athletes and human rights groups have described as "meaningful support", including "pushing back" against the Chinese government.
One recent example suggests this is possible.
On November 2, 2021, Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai posted an accusation on social media that an ex-senior member of the Communist Party of China had sexually assaulted her. Since then, her accusations have been strongly denied by Chinese officials, and Peng has all but disappeared from public life amid suspicions she has been silenced by the government.
But one international organisation has sprung to her defence. In a move that looks set to cost it millions of dollars, The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has suspended all matches in China in 2022 until the Chinese government confirms Peng’s safety and commits to investigating her claims.
It is rare to see a government, organisation or corporation take such a hard line against the Chinese government, but in an interview with CNN, WTA Chairman Steve Simon described the issue as a case of “right and wrong”.
Palazzo says more companies may have to think this way in the future.
“The discussion shows that it will be increasingly difficult for companies to behave as if they could be politically neutral. It is no longer possible,” he said.