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A Chinese flag flutters in front of the IOC headquarters during a protest by activists of the International Tibet Network against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 3, 2021 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department says it’s talking with allies about China’s human rights record and how to handle next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.

A department spokesman on Tuesday suggested that an Olympic boycott to protest China’s rights abuses was among the possibilities. But a senior official said later that a boycott has not yet been discussed.

Human rights groups are protesting China’s hosting of the Games, which open on Feb. 4, 2022. They have urged a diplomatic or straight-up boycott to call attention to alleged Chinese abuses against Uyghurs, Tibetans and residents of Hong Kong.

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Activists are also reaching out to national Olympic committees, athletes and sponsors after failing to get the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee to move the Games out of China.

Beijing is the first city to win the right to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were held with the hope of improving human rights in the country.

POSITION OF IOC AND CHINA

IOC president Thomas Bach says the committee must stay out of politics, although it holds observer status at the United Nations and Bach has touted his own efforts to unite the two Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“We are not a super-world government where the IOC could solve or even address issues for which not the UN Security Council, no G7, no G20 has solutions,” Bach told a news conference last month. He has repeated the IOC must stay “neutral.”

China says “political motives” underlie any boycott effort.

“China firmly rejects the politicization of sports and opposes using human rights issues to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in March. He said an effort at a boycott “is doomed to failure.”

ACTIVISTS HAVE MET WITH THE IOC

Activists met late last year with the IOC and asked for the 2022 Olympics to be moved. They also asked to see documents the IOC says it has in which China gave “assurances” about human rights conditions. Activists say the IOC has not produced the documents. The virtual meeting was headed by IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who oversees preparations for Beijing. His father was the long-time IOC president.

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“We felt like the IOC were having a meeting with us, more so that they could say they were having a meeting with us rather than because they actually wanted to listen and act on anything that we had to say,” Gloria Montgomery, campaigns co-ordinator at the International Tibet Network, said in a recent briefing with other activists.

Frances Hui, director at We The Hongkongers, suggested there was a condescending tone from the IOC in the meeting.

“The first thing we heard is: `It’s a very complicated world.’ And I asked again: How are you going to legitimatize a Games that’s based in a country practising genocide and murdering? Again the reply to me was it’s a complex world.”

BOYCOTT, DIPLOMATIC BOYCOTT

Activists are talking about softer forms of a boycott, but have not ruled out the kind of boycott led by the United States in the 1980 Moscow Olympics; 65 countries stayed away, including China, and 80 participated.

“I think a diplomatic boycott would be very much welcomed by all of our communities. We have been looking towards accountability, and that is definitely part of that path toward accountability,” said Zumretay Arkin, spokeswoman for the World Uyghur Congress.

“Of course the athletes, it’s unfair to them. But athletes also have a conscience, an opinion of their own,” she added.

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WHAT WOULD BOYCOTT ACCOMPLISH?

Bach, who won a gold medal in fencing in the 1976 Games, was deprived of going to Moscow in 1980 as a member of the West German team. He opposes a boycott, which would also severely hurt the IOC’s finances and its image.

The IOC earns 91 per cent of its revenue from selling broadcast rights and sponsorships and has seen its income stalled by the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has also questioned the effectiveness of boycotts.

But it’s one of the few leverage points activists have.

“Before we called for a boycott, we hoped that the IOC could strip China of hosting the Olympics, but they didn’t want to do that,” said Teng Biao, an exiled Chinese human-rights lawyer and activist. “I think the Olympics is a thing the Beijing government cares very much about. We should not give up that chance.”

Teng also welcomed athletes and other participants to protest if the Olympics take place – with social media posts, by wearing descriptive T-shirts, or by skipping the opening ceremony.

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“In terms of the people in Tibet, Uyghurs, Chinese people living in China, I don’t encourage them to protest because the Chinese government has been increasingly brutal. I don’t want them to take a risk to protest during the Olympics,” Teng said.

Several activists cautioned that even athletes and other participants from abroad could be arrested in China under a far-reaching national security law.

“When we call for a boycott, it has to be a co-ordinated boycott led by democratic countries who are now accepting that the genocide is happening,” said Dorjee Tseten, executive director at Students for a Free Tibet. “If we don’t stand now, it will be impossible to make China accountable.”

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