From Peng Shuai to Xinjiang – the issues dogging the Beijing Olympics

  • Beijing will become the first host of a Winter and Summer Games
  • Beijing’s vice mayor previously said the coronavirus would be one of the biggest challenges of the Games
Agence France-Presse |

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The Olympic flame arrived in China from Athens on October 20, ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: EPA-EFE

From human rights to coronavirus and now tennis star Peng Shuai, preparations for February’s Beijing Olympics have been overshadowed by several controversies.

China’s ruling Communist Party is however determined to frame the Winter Games as a chance for the country to showcase its prowess and help the world unite in the face of the pandemic.

The International Olympic Committee has lauded Beijing for making history in becoming the first host of a Summer Games, in 2008, and now a Winter one. With just over 70 days to go, Agence France-Presse Sports takes a look at the issues hanging over the Olympics.

Meet the Hong Kong ski team training in Yabuli, China for the 2022 Winter Olympics

Peng Shuai’s sexual assault claims

There was grave international concern for former world number one doubles player Peng Shuai after she made sexual assault accusations on social media against former top Communist Party politician, Zhang Gaoli.

The 35-year-old – a three-time Olympian – was not heard from for more than two weeks and her claims were rapidly censored. The United Nations, United States and Peng’s fellow tennis stars all voiced fears for her whereabouts.

Peng Shuai (left), accused retired vice-premier Zhang Gaoli earlier this month of pressuring her into having sex, according to screenshots of a since-deleted post from Peng’s verified account on Weibo. Photo: AFP

The Women’s Tennis Association threatened to end its lucrative business in China unless it was assured of her safety.

Peng later appeared on state media in several videos and held a video call with IOC president Thomas Bach on Sunday in which she said she was safe and well, however concerns remain.

Campaigners say that at least one million Uygurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.

China calls for boycott of H&M, criticises Adidas, Nike and Zara over statements on Xinjiang

Human rights groups and foreign governments have found evidence of what they say is mass detentions, forced labour, political indoctrination, torture and forced sterilisation.

Washington has described the situation as genocide and banned all cotton from Xinjiang. US President Joe Biden has said he is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics.

Several major fashion brands have announced they would no longer use cotton from Xinjiang for fear it has been produced by forced labour.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the China Central Television, a Chinese state-owned broadcaster, shows individuals learning Mandarin and law in a professional vocational training institution. Photo: China Central Television

After initially denying the existence of the Xinjiang camps, China later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism. In response to the boycott calls, China has consistently railed against what it calls the “politicisation of sport”.

Human rights in Tibet; clampdown in Hong Kong

Human rights campaigners and exiles have accused Beijing of religious repression and massively curtailing rights in Tibet. Activists unfurled a Tibetan flag at the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Greece.

Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China, which says it “peacefully liberated” the rugged plateau in 1951 and brought infrastructure and education to the previously underdeveloped region.

But many exiled Tibetans accuse the Beijing government of religious repression, torture and eroding their culture – part of broader fears for human rights in China.

There has also been international concern about a clampdown in Hong Kong, which China is remoulding in its own authoritarian image after huge and often violent democracy protests in the city two years ago.

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Covid-19 pandemic

The coronavirus has loomed large over the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, which take place just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games.

China has managed to restrict domestic infections to small clusters through aggressive lockdowns and mass testing, but Beijing organisers have admitted that protecting the Games from the coronavirus is their “biggest challenge”.

Visitors take photos of a statue of figure skaters with the Olympic rings at a park near the headquarters of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) in Beijing. Photo: AP

The Winter Olympics will be held in a “closed loop” – a strict bubble insulating athletes from the outside world for the whole Games. Only people living in China will be allowed to attend as spectators.

The estimated 2,900 athletes must be fully vaccinated or face 21 days in quarantine upon arrival. They, along with media and others in the bubble, will also be tested daily. Entry into the Chinese capital has already been tightened.

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