2022 Beijing Olympics: Sponsors Grilled on China Human Rights Abuses

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Top U.S. corporate sponsors of the Beijing 2022 Olympics dodged two hours of questions from a bipartisan U.S. government commission Tuesday to avoid directly condemning China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

A virtual hearing by Congressional-Executive Commission on China laid bare the hypocrisy of the participating companies. Each in turn described their commitments to human rights in other contexts but proved unwilling to publicly condemn what the body described as the subjugation of “religious and ethnic minorities… to the cruelest forms of mass internment, slavery, forced sterilization, religious repression, and destruction of cultural practices” in China.

Conditions for ethnic Uighurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region have been condemned by human rights organizations for years. Beijing denies there is abuse, but U.S. officials and leading figures in other democracies have recently described activities in Xinjiang as a “genocide.”

“What is particularly frustrating for us is that you can sense the economic coercion that is at play here. If you even say that the genocide against the Uighurs is wrong, then there could be some sort of regulatory retaliation,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey. “A lot of you have strong economic ties and business in China – I get all of that. But that things are unfolding in a way that it can’t just be business as usual.”

In the last four-year Olympic cycle, the top 15 sponsors of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) paid the body around $1 billion in cash or services to be associated with the games, according to Associated Press.

Attending witnesses each gave a five-minute address and then answered questions from members of the commission. Those who spoke were David Holyoke, Airbnb’s head of Olympics and Paralympics partnership; Paul Lalli, the Coca-Cola Company’s global vice president for human rights; Intel Corporation’s executive vice president and general counsel Steven R. Rodgers; Sean Mulvaney, senior director of global government relations and public policy for Procter & Gamble; and Andrea Fairchild, Visa’s senior vice president of global sponsorship and strategy.

None of the witnesses directly responded to multiple yes or no questions about their company’s stance on the 2022 Games.

No company was willing to state that it would “insist that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not assign the Olympics to a country engaged in genocide” in their next contract, among other statements designed to protect human rights.

“Genocide is in a league of its own. Should the Games be moved? Yes or no,” said Smith. “It’s the genocide Olympics – can you not just say move them?”

Fairchild of Visa replied: “Our sponsorship really spans several years. It’s not about a particular host city.”

Mulvaney of P&G said the company has no position on the matter but supports the “promise and potential of the Olympic movement,” adding no further comment when Smith pointed out that it was undermined by issues like genocide.

Airbnb said that the purpose of its IOC partnership is to “connect people.” Earlier this year, a coalition of 150 human rights campaigners asked it to drop its 2022 sponsorship.

Coca-Cola’s Lalli declined multiple times to say that the firm specifically condemned China’s rights violations, saying only that it condemned all such abuses.

For Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson, the clearest takeaway from the hearing were these “impressive contortions” to avoid statements about China’s abuses.

“None of the companies or their representatives could describe in any detail the human rights due diligence that they’ve done specifically around the sponsorship of these Games occurring in a country committing crimes against humanity,” she said. “It’s our view that political repression in the Xinjiang region is so pervasive that due diligence is essentially impossible.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, agreed, slamming Coca-Cola in particular for trying to avoid Chinese government retaliation against the profits that the soft drink giant derives from the populous nation. “You are afraid of them in a way that you are not afraid of critics in the U.S. I think that’s shameful,” he told Lalli.

The muted response from corporate executives at the hearing stands in contrast to the response from Japan’s business community to the discord around the Tokyo summer games now unfolding in mostly empty stadiums around the country.

Out of deference to Japanese public discontent with the government’s COVID-19 response, CEOs of at least four Japanese firms have declined to attend the Tokyo Games, and Toyota has pulled all of its domestic-themed Olympic TV ads.

None of the American executives who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing would state whether they would consider doing the same for the Beijing games scheduled to run Feb. 4-20.

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