By Peter Irwin

Tokyo is marking one year until they play host to the 2020 Summer Olympics, making it the first Asian city to host the games for a second time. Not to be outdone, Beijing’s upcoming Games in 2022 will follow in Tokyo’s footsteps after first hosting in 2008, but circumstances surrounding the event may end up mired in controversy.

Beijing was awarded the Games back in 2015 in a close race with Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a year following the notable withdrawal of a bid from Norway, whom many saw as the obvious front-runner.


Citing a lack of public support, high costs, and ostentatious demands by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – including a bizarre requirement that special lanes be created on all roads used by it members separate from the general public – Norway left the door wide open to China, with arguably fewer qualms throwing money around to bolster its image abroad.

It’s this image that will be most fragile in the lead-up to 2022 as more and more information continues to spill out of the far western Uyghur region. An estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are now arbitrarily held in political re-education camps where detainees are forced to undergo “thought transformation” and pledge loyalty to the Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.

Life outside the camps is similarly bleak as the population there is subjected to one of the most sophisticated surveillance networks on the planet. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras, many equipped with facial recognition software, are coupled with more intrusive tracking through biometrics data – much of it collected under dubious circumstances without established consent.

File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account. File photo: Xinjiang Judicial Administration.

It’s easy then to draw an almost comical comparison between the Olympic Charter and Chinese policy towards Uyghurs. The stated spirit of the Games is one of openness and respect for universal ethical principles, and places sport, “at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

It will not be the moral weight of the Charter, however, that gets in the way of China’s hosting duties. The IOC also has a particular interest in ensuring a controversy-free Games, something that will be difficult to avoid if full-on cultural genocide is taking place within your borders, which many are now suggesting.

If we want China to close the camps and halt these abhorrent policies, activists and human rights groups will do well to hit them (and the IOC) where it hurts – their reputation.

The IOC carries enormous financial and reputational interests in ensuring the Olympics go ahead as planned, so the agents of change will have to possess a clear and nuanced understanding of where the pressure points lay in this respect.

A global campaign was launched last month to tackle this very problem and to clearly illustrate that it is in the best interest of all parties for China to close the camps and host a repression-free games.

The attempted destruction of an entire ethnic identity will not fit well within the accepted bounds of public opinion during Beijing 2022, and it will be the prerogative of both China and the IOC to try to ignore it.

It’s our job not to let them.

Peter Irwin

Peter Irwin is the Program Manager and Spokesperson at the World Uyghur Congress in Munich, Germany, where he works primarily as the UN representative for Geneva-based human rights mechanisms as well as with national governments and civil society. He is a MSc graduate of Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he conducted research on China's engagement at the UN and its relationship to the framing of the Uyghur issue internationally.