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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Why the U.S. Didn't Send Diplomats to Beijing—Uyghur Genocide

February saw Beijing hosting the historic 2022 Winter Olympics only a few short months after the Olympics’ return this summer with the postponed 2020 Tokyo Games. One might assume the return of the winter Olympics through a global pandemic would be a joyous moment, but the athletes’ accomplishments and the international unity was overshadowed by the Chinese genocide of the Uyghur Muslim population. 

The Uyghurs have a population of roughly 12 million in the Xinjiang region of China. Culturally, they are very similar to people and nations in the Central Asian region. Xinjiang is a technically autonomous region in the northwest part of China, but they are still essentially under the control of the Chinese government. Yet, there has recently been a huge movement of Han Chinese people, the major ethnic group in China, allegedly to dilute or force out the Uyghurs. Given that China is a predominantly Buddhist country, this genocide is likely driven by religious discrimination against significant Chinese Muslim populations. There is evidence that in this region the Chinese government has been forcing Uyghurs to pick cotton and have built factories in which Uyghurs are being forced to work. 

This unrest goes back decades, starting with smaller clashes and Xinjiang’s desire to separate from China back in the 1990s. However, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were violent events resulting in hundreds of deaths, leading up to the recent stringent measures in the region. There is now a rigid, overbearing security system in place in the region to keep dissenters in line. The Amnesty International Secretary General even referred to these crackdowns as having created a “dystopian” landscape in Xinjiang.

In recent months, the U.S., along with Canada, the Netherlands, and more have accused China of engaging in a genocide against the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region. Millions of Uyghurs have been placed in “re-education camps” and “transformation-through-education” centers, as they’re referred to by the Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have also been imprisoned, detained for seemingly no reason other than their ethnic status. In order to control the population of the Uyghur Muslims, China has put in place policies of forced sterilization and forced labor, as well as engaging in torture and sexual abuse of those trapped in the camps.

Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused China of genocide, citing reports they published with what they argue is undeniable proof of these horrific acts. Additionally, in December 2021, a British tribunal in London established by a human rights lawyer ruled that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs was in fact a genocide and a crime against humanity. While this tribunal had no power to sanction China or take action, the ruling was significant and brought even more attention to this pressing international crisis. China continues to deny these allegations, affirming that they do not participate in ethnic discrimination, let alone genocide. 

Before the 2022 Games, countries and activist groups all over the world called for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to change the host city, not only citing concerns about the Uyghur population, but also other human rights abuses, including the recent disappearance of Chinese female tennis player Peng Shuai. When it became clear that was not going to be an option, countries decided to engage in a diplomatic boycott, meaning that they would still send their athletes and allow them to compete, but wouldn’t send any government officials. This is one of the few issues today that politicians across the aisle can agree on, from Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The IOC, which has faced backlash over the past few decades, has been taking heat for their decision to host the Olympics in Beijing. They argue that they aren’t responsible for politics in a nation or globally, but to many Americans and people all over the world, it seems like allowing Beijing to have this honor is quietly sanctioning their human rights abuses.

In 1980, the U.S., joined by dozens of other nations, boycotted the Moscow Summer Games. This major controversy came during the Cold War, in particular because of the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. That boycott was hugely significant, with many countries sending either no or very few athletes to Moscow, sending a powerful message to the world that other nations, especially NATO allies, wouldn’t settle for Russian aggression. Generally, the Olympics are a time when nations come together and are able to set aside politics in favor of supporting talented athletes as they compete to fulfill their childhood dreams. However, the idea of political neutrality at the Olympics is becoming more and more untenable as countries like Russia and China engage in major human rights violations, leaving many to wonder if the Olympics could begin to look different in the coming years.

The Olympics were certainly a successful event for many athletes, bringing people from around the world together again following some of the most trying years in history. However, controversies to unsafe course conditions to China’s alleged genocide seemed to overshadow the gold medals and heartfelt moments. The Uyghurs are a small part of a larger global picture, and examining their genocide sparks the question of whether the rest of the world will hold China accountable for their actions. 

Can usually be found listening to The Strokes or Taylor Swift. Spends far too much time eating ice cream or rewatching the same 3 TV shows and would probably rather be at the beach right now.