When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, many argued – or at least hoped – that international attention would improve human rights in China. It wasn't.
Now China is counting down to another Olympic Games in Beijing, this time the Winter Games in February. And it is facing increasing calls for a boycott of its rights violations, from robbing Hong Kong of its promised democratic freedoms to the massive imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
However, the world has changed since 2008. Hardly anyone today believes that holding the Games will dampen China's behavior.
At the time, at the very least, Chinese leaders pledged concessions to basic democratic freedoms to show that they would be worthy hosts. The current leader, Xi Jinping, is much more confident, neither inclined nor forced to compromise. And China itself is no longer an emerging capitalist power, but the world's second-largest economy, competing with the United States for global influence.
Elected officials in the United States, Canada and Great Britain have called on their countries to abstain from the Olympics, as have numerous human rights organizations. Others, such as Freedom House, have said that even if the Games go ahead, government officials, cultural figures and sponsors should refuse to attend.
"Anything less will be seen as an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian rule and a blatant disregard for civil and human rights," said one. public letter drafted this month calling for a boycott. It was signed by more than 180 advocacy groups around the world, many of them targeting Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.
So far no country has imposed a boycott. The calls also met with opposition from the International Olympic Committee, whose charter appeals to "the joy of effort, the educational value of a good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
China's economic influence alone weighs more heavily than ever, even with international bodies such as the Olympic Committee and the major funders of the Games. China has also shown its will to use trade as a tool of geopolitical coercion, as Australia has learned from a series of punitive measures against coal, wine and other exports.
Even sports are not immune. The government has stopped broadcasting the National Basketball Association in China a single tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests, and did the same to a prominent English Premier League football team after one of its players denounced Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs.
"The Chinese government is becoming more powerful and influential," said Teng Biao, a lawyer detained in Beijing in 2008 for criticizing the country's preparations for the Games. "They have the power to sanction those who criticize the regime."
The International Olympic Committee, like the sponsors and broadcasters, has a lot to lose when the Games are rarely attended.
"It is also clear that with these Olympics we want to experience the passion and excellence of sport and the excellence of the Chinese organization," said Thomas Bach, the chairman of the committee, after a phone call to the state news agency Xinhua. call mr. Xi in January to discuss Beijing's final preparations.
Beijing got the 2022 Games after several European cities stopped in 2015, citing the high cost. China beat the only other bidder left, Almaty, Kazakhstan's main city, another authoritarian country. The votes were 44 to 40.
Beijing, which will be the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, is not exactly known for winter sports. China only won its first gold medal at the Winter Olympics, in speed skating, in 2002. Mr. Xi, however, ordained that the country would produce 300 million snow and ice enthusiasts – a goal that Olympic chief, Mr. Bach, pointed out with flying colors last month.
"Chinese Ice and Snow!" Xi cheered during an inspection of future Olympic venues, which was broadcast in a video on Feb. 4, marking the start of the countdown of a year to the Games.
China cut its budget – estimated at $ 3 billion – by some of the iconic sites of the 2008 Summer Games, including the stadium known as the Bird's Nest for the opening and closing ceremonies. The Water Cube, where swimming events were held, will feature curling.
The open-air ski events will be held in two cities northwest of the capital, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which are now connected to Beijing by a new high-speed train that has cut the journey to less than an hour. It doesn't matter that the area normally receives only five inches of snow per year; the rest is created artificially.
China & # 39; s willingness to spend whatever it takes to hold the Games is part of what has made it indispensable to the Olympic Committee. Mr. Teng, the attorney, who is now a professor at Hunter College in New York, was one of those who met with committee officials last October to demand more pressure on China.
"They had no plan to raise basic human rights issues with the Chinese government," he said. "And they won't."
The committee responded with a written statement due to an unnamed spokesperson. It said the commission "has neither the mandate nor the capacity to change the laws or political system of a sovereign country."
China & # 39; s critics have raised many of the same allegations that haunted the country before 2008. They cite the lack of political and religious freedoms, the ubiquitous censorship and the long-lasting repression of Tibet, which the country forcibly absorbed after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The crackdown in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which took place after Beijing won the 2022 Games, has raised the stakes. That includes China & # 39; s continued detention of two Canadians who have been arrested as part of a dispute over a US extradition order for a director of Huawei, the telecommunications giant.
The Trump administration stated in one of its latest acts that China's actions in Xinjiang amounted to genocide, a designation that added weight to the boycott campaign in the United States.
Critics say China's behavior has created a challenge for both democratic nations and the Olympic Committee: if holding more than a million people in camps isn't disqualifying, what would it be?
Some even have compared the 2022 Olympics to those organized by Nazi Germany in 1936, saying it is morally indefensible to award the Games to a country accused of committing mass detention of an ethnic group.
"People are certainly uncomfortable about it," said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, who helped arrange the public letter calling for a boycott.
“I think more needs to be done to connect it with the 1936 Olympics and how we think about it now,” she added. “It is very embarrassing that that ever happened. And we run into that again – this time with our eyes wide open. "
President Biden's government has expressed ambivalence about a boycott, although some of his campaign advisers are said to have raised the idea of a boycott in consultation with other countries.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested a boycott was not yet an option. “We are not currently talking about changing our attitude or our plans regarding the Beijing Olympics,” she said.
The last major Olympic boycott was that of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles; the Soviet Union and its allies stayed away from that event in retaliation for the United States-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The pressure exerted on Beijing today is similar to the pressure exerted on Russia ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. There was no boycott of those Games, despite calls for a new discriminatory law to criminalize. "homosexual propaganda & # 39 ;, but the world leaders largely did not attend them.
Minky Worden, who has followed China's participation in the Olympics for Human Rights Watch for more than two decades, said a campaign against the 2022 Games could put pressure on sponsors and visitors.
"The boycott has a lot of symbolism, but it is not the only arrow in the quiver of the human rights community," she said.
China, for its part, seems undaunted, even challenging.
"If a country is encouraged by extremist forces to take concrete action to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, China will certainly retaliate," said Global Times, a nationalist newspaper owned by the Communist Party. wrote this month.
China is also preparing another Olympic offer, this time with the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing as potential hosts for the 2032 Summer Games.
Tariq Panja contributed to reporting and Claire Fu contributed to research.