As some of the world’s top athletes gather in Beijing for the Winter Olympics, activists and human rights defenders fear that participation in any form amounts to turning a blind eye to persecution.
Ilham Mahmut is a member of a protest group that took to the streets of Tokyo to call on the Japanese government to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics. He is part of the Uyghur ethnic minority who claim that the Chinese government is depriving them of their language, culture and basic human rights. Many are held in camps.
“Is it acceptable to organize the Olympics in a country where humans are deprived of their rights?” he asks. He suggests athletes should consider participating. “Can people be happy there despite the harm caused to other humans? Can they be happy with their success?
The 52-year-old grew up in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region but decided to move to Japan when his first child was born 22 years ago. “I was determined to prevent my child from growing up under Chinese repression,” he says.
“I knew the situation for the Uyghurs could be worse, but I didn’t expect it to go this far,” Ilham said. Although his extended family and friends still live in the area, he was forced to cut off contact with them to ensure their lives were not put in danger.
He deleted all contacts from his phone and kept only his mother’s. But in the spring of 2017, she asked him not to call her anymore.
“A call from a Uyghur abroad, especially one who denounces the Chinese authorities like me, makes life difficult there,” he says. Ilham says overseas calls are monitored and can result in harassment from local police or state security officials. As a result, Uyghurs in Xinjiang no longer want to stay in touch with relatives who have moved away.
“Against the Olympic Spirit”
Human rights groups have criticized the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for awarding the Games to China.
Several nations will not send government officials to the Games, moves China has described as interfering in its internal affairs. The United States has gone so far as to call China’s actions against the Uighurs a genocide, pointing to forced labor, imprisonment and torture. China denies the allegations.
The IOC insists that diplomatic boycotts will not affect China’s ability to stage the event. IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly said that the Olympics should be “politically neutral”.
IOC President Thomas Bach and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on January 25 and discussed the “strong support of the international community” for the upcoming Games.
William Lee, a Hong Kong native who has lived in Japan since 2018, fears the Games will send the wrong message to the international community.
The 28-year-old activist says the Chinese government has gradually stripped Hong Kong people’s freedoms. “People’s daily lives, freedom to criticize the government, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly have all been restricted. [in Hong Kong],” he says.
During a return trip to Hong Kong in November 2019, Lee took photos of protesters in the Wan Chai district and the police intervened. They arrested him for obstructing their work, but later dropped the charges. He says he realized the Hong Kong he once knew was gone.
“I hope people around the world will recognize the problem. What is really going on? Why are Chinese people crying?” he says. “If people can find out clearly, we can finally create an opportunity for change.”
A national security law that took effect in June 2020 has stifled the pro-democracy movement and led to the crackdown on political and media activity. Lee says it makes it more important for people outside of Hong Kong to have their voices heard.
“The stakes are higher, but to be silent is to give China exactly what it wants,” Lee says. “Now is the time for people around the world to put pressure on China and speak out on behalf of those who can no longer.”
Beijing authorities are keen to make sure that doesn’t happen. A Chinese Olympic official has made it clear that athletes could be punished for any behavior that violates the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules. Athletes have been advised not to discuss human rights issues while in China for their own safety.
Ako Tomoko, a sociology professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said Olympic officials should consider whether Beijing embodies the movement’s ideals.
“Should China have been chosen as the host country? I think we have to ask the IOC,” she said. “We should look at the procedure to decide which country should host the Olympics.”