Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
The Winter Olympic Games in Beijing are just days away, but the Biden administration’s campaign to orchestrate a diplomatic boycott, so far joined by only seven allies, is already failing to meet certain expectations. It seems as if the criterion for success was to get a sizable group of countries on board to shame China into improving its human rights conditions.
There’s no question that Beijing’s horrendous acts against the Uyghurs and other minorities in China are atrocious. But policymakers would be deeply misguided to think that such a symbolic gesture, even if perfectly executed, can trigger any meaningful change in Beijing. There are better ways to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s forced labor violations than merely checking symbolic boxes.
Consider some “successful” boycotts in Olympics history. In 1980, America led a boycott, joined by more than 60 countries, of the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union didn’t withdraw from Afghanistan because of the boycott, but generous critics would say that the gesture nevertheless eroded the Kremlin’s prestige and might have even contributed to the regime’s demise about a decade later. But maybe the administration should ask the Ukrainians how they feel about Russian aggression.
Others might claim that the tactic was a success when more than 20 African countries sat out the Montreal Games in 1976, protesting New Zealand’s continued sporting relationship with apartheid South Africa, particularly on the rugby field. One might argue that the boycott made a difference because, a year later, New Zealand joined the Gleneagles Agreement, a pledge among Commonwealth states to discourage any sporting contacts with South Africa. But New Zealand and South Africa still held several more rugby tours throughout the remaining years of the apartheid regime.
Even this limited success required conditions that are not applicable to China today. In 1969, anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand formed the group Halt All Racist Tours to protest the country’s rugby engagement with South Africa. Their efforts continued until the end of the atrocious regime and successfully stopped several rugby tours between the two countries. But in today’s China, not only are there no anti-genocide demonstrations but, thanks to Beijing’s effective propaganda and information control, the typical Chinese person likely doesn’t know that the current boycott is because of forced labor in their country — if they know about the forced labor at all.
Some people in power may want you to believe that symbolic gestures go a long way and, hence, they have done something. But what really makes a difference is the power of the people. There are more effective ways for the American people to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s forced labor practice in Xinjiang, should they choose to exercise their power.
I previously wrote about the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that became law late last year. Intended to block such goods from entering the U.S. market, the legislation has some potential to put meaningful pressures on Beijing. But some important details are yet to be finalized. The Department of Homeland Security is now seeking public comments on how to best do this, and Americans can choose to speak up.
But the most powerful weapon the people have lies in how they make their daily choices. Some international corporations may not want to clean up their forced labor-tainted supply chains because that would cross Beijing and hurt their bottom line, but some may. And if any company does, it would likely be because the vast number of consumers care enough about the issue to change their buying practices. In recent years, ethical consumerism has made significant strides in phasing out conflict diamonds, elephant ivory and child labor-made chocolates in the marketplace. It, too, can make a difference in combating China’s human rights abuses.
Some might say that boycotting the Beijing Games is nevertheless a worthwhile moral gesture. Perhaps. But the gravity of China’s human rights violations demands much more from our morality than any feel-good measures.