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How Can the 2022 Olympic Games Remain Neutral?

photograph of runner statues in Beijing's Olympic Park

After a year of isolation for most everyone around the world, there is hope that we will get back to a  more normal existence thanks to the continued roll-out of vaccines. Traditions that were impossible with coronavirus might now be making a comeback, and this includes the internationally-beloved Olympic Games. While the Tokyo 2021 Olympics are desperately trying to make the show go on while Japan struggles with a rise in infections, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is already facing challenges to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Although the city won the bid to host the games in 2015 there has been an intense wave of criticism with China’s recent actions towards their own people. When Beijing was one of two countries on the ticket to win the bid for next years’ Olympics, the IOC passed reforms aimed at protecting human rights in the host countries. This was after the Sochi 2014 Olympics where there were mass violations of human rights, especially against migrant workers who came to Sochi to help build the facilities for the Olympics. In an attempt to prevent a similar disaster in the future, the IOC passed a number of reforms. Thus far, however, these measures have proven ineffective in preventing human rights violations. Despite China currently committing atrocities against their own citizens, the IOC continues to support them as the host country.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have characterized China’s actions against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region as “genocide.” Since 2019, over one million Uyghurs have been held in “re-education” camps, which are essentially forced assimilation camps where there have been reports of physical abuse, torture, and forced sterilizations. China has denied these allegations and instead claimed that the camps teach job skills as well as the Chinese language. Reports, however, indicate that the Uyghur population, a minority ethnic group, is under continued attack by the Chinese government. These actions represent a clear violation of the reforms the IOC passed in 2015.

Additionally, the government in Beijing has focused their authoritarian energy on Hong Kong, a region that traditionally enjoyed a democratic-like leadership because of former British rule. Recently, that system has essentially collapsed as the government has passed laws placing all the political power of Hong Kong firmly back in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. This has led to arrests of pro-democracy leaders and human rights activists. Those who escaped are now hiding in exile. As another component of the government’s desire to see a completely unified China, the central government might make Taiwan, who considers itself independent from China, it’s next target. In addition, the Chinese government continues its political control over Tibet, despite the decades-long movement for a free Tibet. Taken together, there is overwhelming evidence that China is currently violating, and will continue to violate, the rights of those they don’t see as fully pro-China.

This situation makes the IOC’s continued support of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing increasingly difficult to justify. Already, over 180 organizations have called for a boycott. In response, the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has insisted that the IOC must remain neutral. This position should perhaps not come as a surprise as the IOC allowed for Nazi Germany to hold the 1936 Olympics, when their anti-semitic policies were well-known around the world. The Nazi regime ensured visitors would receive a picture-perfect look of Germany, one where everyone was welcomed and accepted — a very far cry from the reality. Germany played the part so well that the Games helped legitimize the Nazi regime and earn appeasement from the rest of the world. Eleven Olympic athletes would die in the Holocaust just a few years later. While the Berlin Games were decades ago, the IOC appears to still not have learned their dangerous lesson and recognized the legitimizing power that the Olympics can bring to a country actively violating the rights of millions of people. This power makes it impossible for the IOC to be truly “neutral” in these violations; refusing to move the Olympic venue makes them complicit in the ongoing violence against people in China.

The decision to hold the games in Beijing is in direct opposition to the spirit and mission of the IOC. By their very own definition, Olympism represents a“philosophy of life” for the Olympics which seeks “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” That vision also consists of “building a better world through sport.” While these inspirational statements gesture at universal values and global commitments, the committee’s actions look very different. Besides refusing to move the location of the 2022 Olympics, the IOC has also urged countries not to protest these games on the grounds that such demonstrations are not effective in changing policy. While the IOC claims they are fully supportive of freedom of expression, they continue to uphold Rule 50, which is meant to “keep the field of play, Olympic village and the podium neutral.” In reality, this measure merely bars athletes from expressing dissent.

When pressed to draw lines, the committee has reflexively responded that no country should be quick to cast the first stone: “where would you celebrate the games if you take that attitude?” Such deflections make a darker point: while countries like Britain and the U.S. chose to confront Nazi extremism, both have a violent past of colonization and slavery of their own to reckon with. Countries around the world have their own histories, current realities, and potential futures of human rights conflicts. It might be nearly impossible to find a country completely free of blame.

But this does not mean that we must stand idly by. We should instead recognize that it is impossible to remain neutral in today’s world. While sports may be a cathartic and temporary relief from the stress of reality for a lot of people, it is a true privilege to be able to enjoy that relief. There are too many lives, cultures, and countries at risk for the IOC to ignore China’s treatment of its citizens and behavior toward its neighbors. If the committee truly wants to live up to their mission of creating a better world through sport, then they need to acknowledge the lived realities of people being silenced and abused around the world and recognize the impact the Games have in legitimizing those actions and hiding that abuse.

Uighur Genocide and the Wrong of Population Control

photograph of four Uighur women, one with a baby

An AP investigation has confirmed complaints from Uighur women that China has been sterilizing them against their will, and in fact discovered that these assaults have been more widespread than previously thought.

Since 2016, an estimated 1 million or more Uighurs have been detained in “re-education” camps. The new investigation highlights the relationship between pregnancy, fertility, and the threat of the camps: “Uighur women and other ethnic minorities are being threatened with internment in the camps for refusing to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas [….] Women who had fewer than the legally permitted limit of two children were involuntarily fitted with intrauterine contraceptives.”

By interfering with the reproductive choices of the potential parents, the Chinese government is interfering with the bodily integrity of individuals, and thus violating basic moral principles and fundamental human rights. China is specifically targeting a particular ethnic group with a policy that infringes on individuals’ reproductive autonomy. These acts constitute genocide according to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

The first morally problematic feature of China’s policies is also the most commonplace and simple: government representatives are acting on members of the community against their will. This infringement of bodily autonomy is assault. There are a very limited number of situations where it is permissible to interfere with someone’s body absent consent, but these cases clearly do not qualify. Moreover, these policies interfere with people’s private desires regarding the formation of a family unit. Family identity and relationships can inform a great deal of one’s priorities and self-understanding; to take those relationships, networks, and choices away from individuals is a particular kind of harm.

Secondly, it is clear that these policies are a further element of oppression towards a population that China has been systematically disadvantaging for years. Uighurs in China have been isolated, surveilled, put into work and re-education camps, and exposed to varieties of mental and physical harms. The group subject to these forced sterilizations has been the target before of racist, bigoted policies aimed at affecting its population and the promulgation of its community in the future.

Given these policies aims and outcomes, China actions constitute genocide against the Uighurs. Many consider genocide to be limited to violent killings with the intent to eliminate an ethnic, racial, or religious minority, as in Myanmar (against Rohingya) in 2016 and again in 2018, or in Somalia (against Isaaqs)1987-8, in Rwanda (against Tutsis) 1994, in Bosnia (against Bosniaks) 1995, by ISIL (against Yazidis) 2014…. However, there are more ways to eliminate a group of people beyond presenting its members with a violent death.

Given that the act of sterilization is targeted towards an unwanted, oppressed community and, by its nature, serves to prevent births in the group and thereby limit its future population, China’s forcible sterilization of members of the Uighur population represents an act of genocide. As the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect states, “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: …d. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

China is far from the first government body that has used the interference and control of reproduction, or the breaking down of the family unit, as a way to undermine or even eliminate an ethnicity or cultural group. Recent examples include:

  • In the fall of 2018, a group of Indigenous Canadian women filed a class-action suit against Saskatoon Health Authority, the provincial and federal governments, and some medical professionals claiming that doctors forcibly sterilized them over several decades, through the 2000s.
  • In the United States in the 20th century, 20,000 the government funded sterilizations performed in California disproportionately targeting African Americans and Latinos.
  • Further, California prisons have authorized sterilizations of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010.  The state paid doctors $147,460 to perform tubal ligations that former inmates say were done under coercion.
  • In 2003, an investigative report documented grave human rights violations against Romani women in Slovakia, that 110 Romani women in Slovakia were forcibly or coercively sterilized, or had strong indications that they had been sterilized.

China’s policies in the Xinjian region actually qualify for genocide under two defining acts. The UN Article outlining crimes of genocide that follows just after that cited above states that, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is a crime of genocide. This highlights further concerns of China’s policies towards Uighurs and also brings the behavior of many governments into question.

As mentioned above, China has been sending ethnic minorities, Uighurs prominent among them, to re-education and work camps. A primary function of these camps includes separating children from there family and community in order to inculcate them in the “Chinese” mode of life. From 2017-2019, thousands of children in the Xinjiang region were separated from their parents in a “systematic campaign of social re-engineering and cultural genocide.” In these schools, children are banned from speaking their Uighur language and are taught instead Chinese mannerisms, customs, and language. As German researcher Dr. Adrian Zenz shares with The Independent, “China has implemented the “weaponisation of education and social care systems” in order to cut off minority children from their roots. “Boarding schools provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies.”

Again, China is not alone in these tactics. Into the 20th and 21st century, the United States has performed similar operations.

  • The United States has relocated children away from their parents multiple times throughout its history as a way of preserving its deluded sense of national identity. From 1860 to 1978, the boarding schools for Indigenous Americans had the express purpose to separate children from their families and cultures and indoctrinate them in the government’s ideas of American-ness. Thousands of children.
  • In the last decades, the United States has performed family separation and detention operations at the southern border in the name of National Security but with barely concealed xenophobia and racism. From November 2017 to April 2018, The New York Times reported that the United States had already removed an estimated 700 children from their families at the southern border. Genocide Watch reports, “According to Trump administration statistics, 2,342 children were separated from their families as a result of criminal prosecution between May 5 and June 9, 2018, bringing the total number of children forcibly separated from their families to over 3,000, though no reliable figure is easily available. These children are now scattered across the United States in a confusing mixture of detention facilities and foster home arrangements.”

Retaining control of the family and reproduction as the means of preserving the cultural or ethnic identity of a community is critical. When young members of the community are separated and immersed in another community entirely, their original community is robbed of members, and that individual loses those deep connections. When new members can no longer continue the existence of the community across generations, the interference succeeds at eliminating these communities’ very existence.

In morally assessing the sterilization practices of China on the oppressed Uighur population, it is important to have the appropriate tools to articulate the specific injustice of these policies. That is the goal of the UN declaration, which identifies and underscores the seriousness of actions like forced sterilization.

But what relevant moral weight is added by labeling such actions ‘genocide’ as opposed to merely ‘assault’? When I assault you against your will, moral theorists of any stripe can say “bad!” and explain why it was morally wrong. When we add the context that this assault took away important choices, moral theorists might still be able to account for this being worse than some other harms: because the part of one’s life that involves such choices is important, harming the ability to control it increases the relevant harm. So, perhaps, we could respond “BAD!” to express our moral assessment.

It may become a bit tricky from here. Intuitively, that the harm is being targeted at an individual because of who they are, or because of the group they are a member of, many theories this is not only morally relevant, but that it makes the harm worse. This amplification of wrong is furthered when the harm isn’t just targeting someone based on their identity, but when that targeting is meant to eliminate the person and group’s existence.

But for traditional utilitarians, the oppression or prejudice involved in a harm doesn’t necessarily add to the harm experienced by the individual. Harms will differ for the utilitarian in degree if 1) more individuals are harmed, or 2) the harm is worse, either straightforwardly like a scratch versus a stab, or in a manner similar to that articulated above where perhaps a physical assault might begin to approximate an anesthetized tubal ligation, but the latter comes with more life import.

This has been one of the core critiques of utilitarianism by feminist philosophers. As long as an action produces more harm than good, it is morally permissible. We could imagine a world where prejudice, bigotry, and oppression of some minority communities results in an overall benefit to the population as a whole (just so long as the detractions occur within minority communities). In its simplest form, utilitarianism seems to lack the moral structure to make sense of how this is an unjust and immoral state of affairs. Imagine, for instance, that a library excludes some from entering (women, or non-white people, etc.). Helpful classmates may provide all the copies of the material you need, and therefore no harm is ever accrued by the policy, yet there exists morally wrong behavior and actions. The wrongness of the exclusionary policy isn’t just the harm to those excluded, but lies within the structure of the policy itself — a feature that utilitarianism can struggle to account for.

What this means is that not all moral theories will agree that the charge of genocide possesses some unique moral weight. In order to make China’s policy of forced sterilization as poignantly impermissible to utilitarians, for instance, one need only show that the harms of the policies outweigh the benefits — this does not seem a tall order.

Indeed, for the host of international wrongs listed above, it cannot escape any moral theory that grave wrongs are being committed. According to the United Nations, a major body that passes for international standards of crime and responsibility, countless lives are being abused in ways that cannot be tolerated regardless of the language we use.

Uighur Re-Education and Freedom of Conscience

"Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China" by Joe Hunt licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)..jpg

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In August, UN’s human rights committees received credible information about abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. In this large, supposedly autonomous region in the west of China, there are about 11 million Uighur Muslims who speak a language similar to Turkish. The concerns raised to the UN committee included biometric testing, surveillance, and re-education programs against this significant minority population. Human Rights Watch reported that citizens that had family members living in any of 26 “sensitive” countries were being detained. The surveillance is said to include tracking people using coded entry to buildings and facial recognition technology, and the use of WhatsApp is being tracked. Credible reports to the UN claim that an estimated 1 million Uighurs are in camps undergoing torture and forced to praise the president while renouncing their religion.

Xinjiang, the largest region in China, is being compared to a large internment camp. The BBC reports, “Former prisoners told us of physical as well as psychological torture in the camps. Entire families had disappeared, and we were told detainees were tortured physically and mentally.” In August, China denied actions being taken in the region.

In the second week of October, Beijing legalized re-education camps and programs in order to tackle so-called Uighur extremism through “thought transformation.” The indoctrination includes forced Mandarin teaching and renunciation of the detainees’ Muslim faith in the name of “vocational training.” While China defends the new legalization of interventions in Xinjiang, Sophie Richardson from Human Rights Watch said the “words on paper outlining grotesque, vast human rights abuses don’t deserve the term ‘law.'” (The extremist behavior China cites as justifying this extreme intervention includes not watching state tv, avoiding state-run schools, and producing halal products.)

The extreme surveillance and lack of due process before detaining individuals in the camps is problematic from a human rights perspective, of course. Here I will focus on the conversion efforts and why they are uniquely problematic.

The Chinese government is coercing a group of people away from sincerely held ethical or religious beliefs and thereby violating a right to freedom of conscience. Why might we think this is a human right, or perhaps less stringent, a value that ought to be prima facie respected?

Historically there have been a few different angles to defend the freedom of conscience. Typically, they center on a descriptive fact of human nature: people have a plurality of ethical and religious perspectives.

A defense based on (lack of) effectiveness suggests that when you coerce ethical or religious conversion, at most you will alter external practices while the individual’s internal commitments will remain unchanged. Political coercion, in other words, is not effective in altering ethical and religious outlooks. You are, in effect, creating a group of hypocrites who have a comprehensive moral view that conflicts with their outward behavior.

There have, of course, been faiths that have at particular times doubted this ineffectiveness. The Catholic Church in Europe considered violence at times to open heretic’s eyes to the “truth,” and thus coercion was justified (Augustine argues this case in the fifth century, and others take up this tack centuries later during the Reformation). To justify this conversion, the coercive group has been committed to a notion that they have the truth, or the correct ethical view, to the point that making people believe the truth outweighs respecting their personal convictions.

Another defense of freedom of conscience originates from what could be seen as the opposite temperament – an epistemic humility about one’s own ethical or religious perspective. When we recognize that our commitments are just one set among many different sets of ethical and religious outlooks on the world, one response might be that there isn’t sufficient justification to move someone from what they believe to one’s own perspective. We can see this defense of freedom of conscience again in the Protestant Reformation (for instance, by Pierre Bayle), when some philosophers and religious scholars saw insufficient reason to adopt a Protestant or Catholic framework aside from conviction.

Both of these defenses of the freedom of conscience take it that people adopt different ethical orientations that differ substantively. In the first, the freedom is defended out of practical considerations doubting this purported fact can be altered. In the second, the freedom is defended on the grounds that the presences of a plurality undermines strong enough justification in any particular perspective to coerce conversion. John Rawls, a political philosopher in the 20th century in the US, was committed to what he called a “reasonable pluralism,” which can be seen as a mix of these defenses.

Rawls developed a theory for a just government that would have legitimate authority over its citizens and thereby be structured to promote the primary goods of the people. On Rawls’ view, there are a number of ethical and religious perspectives that one could “reasonably” adopt; people reasoning in good faith will inevitably come to different conclusions about deep, philosophical questions because of their own unique set of experiences and values. While not all determinations will be morally defensible, there will be a range of convictions that might be deemed justifiable epistemically and sufficiently tolerant of others’ views. Given this range of reasonable ethical and religious worldviews, it would be presumptuous and intolerant for a practitioner of one comprehensive moral system (say, Buddhism) to expect a practitioner of another (say, Islam) to conform to his or her own (Buddhism).  So, at the level of government it would be unreasonable to include mandatory commitment to a particular comprehensive ethical or religious perspective (tenets of Buddhism, Islam, atheism, or any system that one would reject if didn’t share the ethical or religious perspective). The members of other ethical systems could reasonably reject such a government, which would undermine its legitimacy.

It is again worth noting that there are substantive commitments underlying the pluralist commitments of Rawls’ view. There have been political philosophies that do not take pluralism to be a necessary tenet of a legitimate government while accepting the descriptive fact that people may adopt many different ethical views.

Mozi, a philosopher from the Warring States Period of Chinese history, was concerned about pluralism. He agreed with the descriptive commitment that where there are many people there are many ethical and religious commitments. However, he saw this is as something to tackle rather than to accept because of the discord that foments as a result. In a “state of nature” argument that justifies the legitimacy of a very different government structure than Rawls’, Mozi argues that an authoritarian government that speaks with one ethical voice and is free of corruption will inspire ethical monism and prosperity among the people. He thus disagrees with the first defense of the freedom of conscience and considers it possible to influence the population’s ethical perspective; roughly, he recommends having those in positions of power reward and honor individuals in line with the ethos of the government and suggests that an ethical monism in the nation will follow.

In political philosophy, the problem of descriptive pluralism is a complicated one as it involves empirical questions regarding what it takes to alter someone’s deepest ethical conviction as well as normative ones concerning which ethical convictions are justified and when influencing the convictions of others is justified. Today, the government crackdown in Xinjiang involves such an intersection of rights abuses that it is clear that many injustices are being committed. In the US, members of Congress has pressed for Trump to intervene in China to discourage their treatment but as of the second week of October, the Trump administration has not responded.