The Beijing Paralympics were a diversionary farce from a totalitarian regime

As Jews, we need to remember the lessons of the 1936 games

March 14, 2022 12:28

It’s a farce. How can China hold sporting host nation status until the end of the Winter Paralympics this Sunday, whilst its authoritarian government keeps on committing horrific human rights abuses. We know from Russia, that human rights abuses and dictatorships have to be taken seriously. How can it possibly be that President Xi Jinping is still allowed to benefit from the best distraction he could hope for in Ukraine?

Russian athletes have rightly been banned from competing under their flag Beijing Paralympics and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after Vladimir Putin’s devastating invasion of Ukraine. Yet with totalitarian cadres around the world watching closely, we can’t ignore other disgraceful dictatorships. Leaders guilty of atrocities, have hosted countless international events and we’ve often played into their blood-stained hands. 

Watching Winter Olympians and Paralympians hurtling down the slopes in Beijing, it seems that the Chinese government’s aim was to deliberately divert attention from their own despicable behaviour. Millions of Uyghurs in China are still interned in concentration camps and subjected to ‘re-education’, forced labour and forced sterilisation. Although the UK and others have imposed a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Games the focus is still, incredibly, on Paralympic medal counts. But the Chinese government’s commitment to human rights is about as real as the fake snow it shipped in to make its outdoor venues skiable.

Artificially covering the ground in a layer of deceptive, blanketing snow is a symbol of the ‘sportswashing’ underway. The shine of ice and medals deflects from dire human rights violations, misdirecting the world’s gaze. This cynical perversion of truth is exacerbated by intimidating China’s citizens, who were ordered to ‘make way for the Games’ at all costs. Even raising valid environmental concerns about the 190 million litres of shipped-in snow can be extremely dangerous for the Chinese public.

As Jews, we remember how infamously, in 1936, one of the first sportswashing campaigns saw the Nazis remove signs declaring ‘Jews not wanted’ from all over Berlin. They were showing the world a sanitised reality, tolerant and peaceful, when it descended on the city for the Eleventh Olympic Games. Cleaned up and hidden under the surface was their murderous racism. The local Roma population had already been rounded up and put in a concentration camp, and German Jews had already been stripped of their citizenship and rights.

The global prestige of the Berlin Games led visiting delegations to give the Nazi salute and implicitly endorse the Nazis’ murderous racial and anti-disability theories. Xi’s China is not Hitler’s Germany, but there are lessons which have not been learned in the years since. Like the story of the emperor parading around (naked) in his new clothes, the community of nations often knows well what’s happening but chooses to say nothing that might ‘embarrass the hosts.’

The World Uyghur Congress urged athletes to use their platforms to highlight systematic oppression in Xinjiang. We must heed that call ourselves. Before the Winter Olympics last month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) failed to act and instead toed the Chinese Communist Party line which threatened athletes who break vague regulations with ‘certain punishment.’ Many competitors brought burner phones with them due to widespread surveillance and censorship.

In this repressive climate, we are better placed to speak out in place of silenced Olympians and Paralympians. This is also a chance to rally against the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong since 2019 and the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a former vice-premiere, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault.

The Beijing Winter Paralympics ended this weekend, but the story is far from over for Uyghurs, other targeted minorities and activists fearing for their lives. Human rights groups like René Cassin are leading the way in renewing calls for the Chinese government to respect human rights and be held accountable.

We all have the power to act by writing to our MPs or tweeting about the #GenocideGames. Sportswashing, given the go-ahead by the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee, must not continue unchallenged. Making a conscious decision to avoid buying products manufactured by companies known to use Uyghur forced labour is another way to impact. We cannot plead ignorance of the situation described when the Uyghur Tribunal concluded that ‘torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide’ are taking place under our noses.

The heat might be on Putin’s Russia now, but corporate sponsorship by Airbnb, Coca Cola, Samsung and many other companies has made these Games lucrative for China. What lies under this spectacle of sportsmanship is harrowing persecution by the state.

Like the Jewish athletes barred from representing Germany in the Berlin Games, many of them champions, there is no voice for victims during these Paralympics. Let us elevate those voices now and not be manipulated by cynical sleights of hand from anti-democratic rulers.

March 14, 2022 12:28

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