The evidence of abuses in the Chinese region of Xinjiang has been mounting over the past year. Testimony from former detainees, satellite imagery and publicly available local government documentation have all pointed to the building of concentration camps, the detention of a million or more Uighurs and other Muslim minorities and rampant abuses against the detained, including torture and sexual violence. Conditions outside the camps are not much better, with a security apparatus that is oppressive and omnipresent.
The recent leak of the Xinjiang Papers — more than 400 pages of internal Chinese government documents — provide proof that China’s leaders are directly responsible for the abuses in Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping undoubtedly set the direction for that policy, with disastrous consequences for China’s Muslims.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Xinjiang Papers showed China’s intent to “effectively erase” the Uighur people. These are strong words and raise the question of whether China’s leaders have genocidal intent. Some reported abuses in Xinjiang — including forced sterilizations and the separation of children from their families — could, indeed, constitute genocide.
The question is what to do about this. The State Department has worked to publicize the plight of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and has placed visa restrictions on culpable individuals. The Commerce Department has issued a list of Chinese companies complicit in the abuses, barring Americans from doing business with them. The publication of the Xinjiang Papers should encourage the Treasury Department to impose sanctions on senior leaders, including Chen Quanguo, the Xinjiang party boss.
But more must be done. If the United States and other nations are to be successful in convincing China to moderate its policies in Xinjiang, they should target Xi directly. Fortunately, the international community has good leverage to use against him: Beijing will host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
The International Olympic Committee should revisit its decision to award the Games to Beijing in light of the overwhelming evidence of Chinese crimes against the people in Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the IOC has shown that it’s incapable of standing up for human rights. That means that the United States and other concerned countries must act.
The Trump administration, with congressional support, should begin working now to build an international coalition that will call on the IOC to move or cancel the Games unless China closes the camps and ends abuses in Xinjiang.
If the IOC refuses to play ball, which is likely, the coalition should be prepared to threaten a boycott of the 2022 Olympics and to hold parallel “Freedom Games” if Beijing does not rapidly alter course. If the Trump administration fails to act, Congress could call on the U.S. Olympic Committee to announce its own boycott. If the committee refuses, Congress should look into revoking its federal charter.
It would be nice to separate sports from politics, but China uses international sport to advance its political interests. Just as Hu Jintao employed the 2008 Summer Games to signal China’s “arrival” on the world stage, Xi will use the 2022 Games to signal to his own people that his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”is well underway. The 2022 Olympics will be a grand propaganda spectacle in which participating countries will play supporting roles.
A cancellation, relocation or boycott of the Games would mark a significant international and domestic embarrassment for Xi. News of the reasons behind such a development would certainly make its way past China’s Great Firewall. Using the Olympics as leverage could be quite effective because doing so would challenge Xi’s leadership.
If the U.S. fails to find international partners, Washington should be prepared for a solitary boycott. To participate in the Beijing 2022 Games despite the atrocities being committed against the Uighurs would be to acquiesce to those abuses. By standing up for human rights principles, the U.S. could inspire others to follow our lead while showing abusers that, when it comes to defending human rights, America is no paper tiger.
Michael Mazza is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.