Olympic leaders tried to distance themselves from a Chinese official’s claim that reports of massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang province were just ‘lies’, but said nothing that could really offend their hosts at the Beijing Winter Games.
A Chinese foreign ministry official serving as Beijing 2022 spokeswoman, Yan Jiarong, blew the cautious facade of political neutrality at the Olympics on Thursday when she used a joint press conference with the IOC to launch in political diatribes.
In a jaw-dropping performance, Yan interrupted several times as reporters asked IOC spokesman Mark Adams about the crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province, and whether Taiwan had been forced to participate in the opening and closing ceremonies in Beijing.
“We take a solemn position,” she said. “There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China, it is a well-recognized international principle. We are still against the idea of politicizing the Olympic Games.
That, of course, was exactly what she did – and human rights activists were quick to attack the IOC for letting China off the hook.
“The IOC looks absurd, pathetic and Holocaust denier,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told InsideTheGames. “Yesterday’s press conference told us everything we needed to know.”
More than a dozen nations have joined a US-led ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Beijing Games to protest US State Department calls for a genocidal campaign of repression against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, a province in northwest China.
The IOC always presents itself, as well as the Olympics, as above politics and world sport as a force for peace. Asked about Yan’s comments, IOC President Thomas Bach told a news conference on Friday that the IOC had not ignored the issue. “We were in contact with [Beijing organizing committee] Bocog immediately after this press conference,” he said. “And then both organisations, Bocog and the IOC, reaffirmed their unequivocal commitment to remain politically neutral, as required by the Olympic Charter.”
For the New York Times, Bach’s statement amounted to “a rare and surprising rebuke from a Chinese Olympic official”. This might be about right for those practicing the art of decoding the IOC language, but his words could also be understood to say, “We discussed the problem with our Chinese friends and agreed that there is no not really a problem. ”
The contrast between Yan’s strident statements from the press center podium and the treatment of athletes in Beijing, who were warned they would be punished for saying anything political in China, is stark. Journalists have also complained of censorship and brutality from Olympic staff who interrupt their reporting from Beijing.
The only athlete to take a public stand on human rights during the Olympics is Nils van der Poel, the two-time gold medalist in speed skating, although he waited until he got home to Sweden before telling reporters: “It was extremely irresponsible to attribute the Games to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese government does.
Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang told InsideTheGames that China’s hosting of its second Olympics cemented rather than discouraged human rights abuses. She said Beijing’s decision to choose a young Uyghur skier to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony at Bird’s Nest Stadium was “like a major for the rest of the world”.
It was, she added, ‘as if the Nazis had chosen a Jewish athlete to light the cauldron in 1936’ – when Adolf Hitler hosted the Olympics in Berlin, in what has yet to be seen as the point the lowest in the history of the IOC.