The Beijing Winter Olympics are set against a backdrop of elevated and dangerous tensions between the United States and China. Gasoline has been poured, and both Democrats and Republicans have flicked lit matches. In addition to the predictable braying for war emerging from far-right Muppets like Senator Tom Cotton, former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill took to Twitter to scold US-born skier Eileen Gu for competing with the Chinese team, saying, in part, “I don’t get it. And never will. I think it is wrong for an American to compete for China. China represses free speech, is well known for their human rights violations.” Rather than viewing Gu’s move to represent China as a nod to her heritage, too many Democrats and Republicans viewed it as a dalliance with the enemy. US Representative and Hitler fetishist Madison Cawthorn, who really should hide his head in shame when the Olympics and Paralympics come around, called for Gu to lose her citizenship. For its part, the Biden administration is carrying out a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
And yet for some the concern about Beijing’s hosting the Games is not rooted in anti-China sentiment, nationalism, opportunism, or the whims of the military-industrial complex but instead in real solidarity with the democratic aspirations of Chinese workers—including union rights, LGBTQ rights, and feminist equality—as well as the basic human rights of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang whose conditions have been likened to genocide. Unfortunately, we live in a political climate, like some zombie film from the Cold War era, defined by “campism,” the idea that you have to side with the ruling classes of either the United States or China, with no third position available. If you stand against a new Cold War and the unconscionable hate crimes being perpetrated against Asian people in the United States, then you must be a stooge of Beijing. If you stand with the Uyghurs, then some on the ostensible left will accuse you of being a sock puppet for the US State Department. What we don’t have is a mass independent current that can stand with the oppressed in the United States and in China, and that refuses to paper over structural inequalities on either side in order to win political points.
Into this thicket stepped the International Olympic Committee’s US broadcast partner, NBC, and its anchor Mike Tirico. During the opening night of the Games, Tirico spoke some inconvenient truths about this year’s Winter Olympics and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to nestle in Beijing. He sliced to the core of the issue, saying, “The United States government is not here, a diplomatic boycott announced this fall joined by Canada, Great Britain, and Australia citing China’s human rights record and the US government’s declaration that the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of committing genocide on the Uyghur Muslim population in Western Xinjiang region.”
He also pointed out the crackdowns on democracy protests in Hong Kong and nodded toward the idea of “sportswashing,” when a country uses an event like the Olympics to distract from the oppressive realities at home. To be sure, it is a good thing that NBC took on the human-rights elephant in the room. That said, it’s also hardly a brave topic to broach, given the bipartisan pyre in full flame in the US that, in turn, has structured permission there for anti-Chinese sentiment.
The numbers are striking. Last year, a Pew Research poll found that 67 percent of the Americans polled held negative feelings toward China. This was a remarkable 21 percent increase in only three years. Beyond this, a Gallup poll found that between February 2020 and February 2021, the number who viewed China as their country’s “greatest enemy” more than doubled, jumping from 22 percent to 45 percent. This enemy-speak has repercussions. Last year, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339 percent in the United States. Under these conditions, Tirico and NBC may well have faced more criticism had they pretended everything was hunky-dory.
As for sportswashing, it must be pointed out that when NBC, which forked over a staggering $7.75 billion in 2014 for broadcast rights to the Olympics running through 2032, gestured toward the complicity of the IOC in all of its amorality, of course it’s in relation to Beijing. There is sportswashing with every Olympics. And yet NBC didn’t run segments about the realities of favela displacement for the Rio Games in 2016. Last summer, it did not spotlight the ways that Fukushima still suffers under the weight of the 2011 nuclear disaster, while the government touted the Tokyo Summer Games as a “recovery Olympics.” But now, all of a sudden, when NBC refuses to carry the IOC’s water, it’s because US public opinion, no matter how reactionary, matters more. What the response to these Olympics make clear is that we need to move beyond campism and stand with China’s workers, LGBTQ and feminist activists, and Uyghurs while also raising our voices against the ugly drive in the United States toward a cold war—if not a hot one.