The Winter Olympics put brands under pressure due to violations of rights in China

Brands such as Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Visa have paid millions to sponsor the Winter Games, which began on Friday in Beijing. In doing so, rights groups say they support human rights abuses, including the detention of millions of Uighur Muslims.

China’s opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics on February 4 marked the start of the 17-day competition, with some significant figures missing.

The crowd for the spectacle at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium was smaller than usual due to the ongoing health pandemic, but many high-profile heads of government also chose not to attend.

In December, US President Joe Biden announced a diplomatic boycott that would mean that no US officials would be present at the Games because of “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and New Zealand followed suit.

Many athletes were also expected to miss the opening ceremony to show solidarity with victims of human rights abuses in China, including Hong Kongers, Tibetans and in particular millions of Uighurs in the Xinjiang region who have been subjected to “imprisonment, torture and forced labor”. “, According to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

>> Tibetans protest against the Games in Beijing outside the Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Lausanne

“The sawing of the Olympics cannot cover genocide,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uigur Human Rights Project. “It’s hard to understand why anyone thinks it’s even possible to celebrate international friendship and ‘Olympic values’ in Beijing this year.”

Reputation in the risk zone for sponsors While governments and even athletes give the games a wide place, corporate sponsors – many of whom are based in the West – have ended up in a dead end.

Companies including Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Atos, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Intel, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Toyota and Visa have paid a total of $ 1 billion to help fund the 2022 Winter Games, despite widely reported ethics questions.

“Once they have pledged to sponsor the Olympics, they have pledged to follow an ethical line,” Andrew Crane, a professor of business and society at the University of Bath, told FRANCE 24. “There are risks in both directions.”

On the one hand, criticizing China’s human rights implies potential exclusion from the world’s largest consumer economy.

On the other hand, saying nothing means “being associated with an Olympic game held in the middle of a genocide” as the US Congress Executive Commission for China pointed out to representatives of six corporate sponsors of the July 2021 Winter Olympics.

“If they take a stand on human rights in China, they risk making their Chinese customers angry. If they do not, they will anger their European and American customers. It will damage their reputation in one way or another, says Guido Palazzo, professor of business ethics at the University of Lausanne, to FRANCE 24.

Long-term risks Although the games take place in the Chinese capital Beijing, the northwestern region of Xinjiang is at the heart of the ethical debate.

Snow-capped and mountainous, Xinjiang is an emerging winter sports destination – an image that China has been keen to cultivate ahead of the Games.

It is also a hub for foreign companies, with a Coca-Cola bottling plant and operations centers for Intel, Tesla and Volkswagen among other international brands.

But Xinjiang most often appears in international headlines because of what the Chinese government calls “vocational training centers” that imprison an estimated 1 million members of the Uighur population.

Even if the Winter Olympics last only 17 days, the spotlight on companies operating in this region could worsen their reputation well into the future, Palazzo said. “The long-term risks are related to the presence of companies in China,” he says. “Do they operate in regions where some of the most problematic human rights situations exist? How do they behave in these regions?”

“Companies operating in Xinjiang Province and forcing Uighurs into their own operations or supply chain will have real problems.”

Different approaches Ahead of the Games, some companies took steps to distance themselves from the Xinjiang region in particular. In December, Olympic sponsor Intel sent a letter asking suppliers to “ensure that its supply chain does not use any labor or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region” due to restrictions imposed by “several governments”.

When the letter was published, it prompted Chinese social media to boycott the company, and Intel quickly apologized.

Others have doubled their commitment to doing business in Xinjiang. The American snowboard company Burton designed the uniforms for the US Olympic snowboard team and expects to expand existing operations in Xinjiang when China becomes one of the world’s largest winter sports destinations.

“We will focus on what we can change for the better,” said CEO Craig Smith in an interview with the BBC, adding that the attitude towards the region focused on “sharing the fun of snowboarding”.

Sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and Procter & Gamble are simply undermining their connection to the Winter Games in countries such as the United States.

Coca-Cola has sponsored every edition of the Olympics since 1928, but this winter, products such as limited editions of Olympic Cola cans, which would normally be sold around the world, will only be released in China. The company also does not send its CEO or other business leaders to the games.

Pressure to act? Crane says the Winter Olympics are now “too tough” for companies to find a solution that makes both China and the West happy.

In such a polarized context, where even silence is a risk, there may be an opening for companies to provide what athletes and human rights groups have described as “meaningful support”, including “pushing back” against the Chinese government.

A recent example suggests that this is possible.

On November 2, 2021, Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai posted an accusation on social media that a former senior member of the Chinese Communist Party had sexually abused her. Since then, her accusations have been strongly denied by Chinese officials, and Peng has almost disappeared from public life on suspicion that she has been silenced by the government.

But an international organization has come to her defense. In a move that appears to cost millions of dollars, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has suspended all matches in China by 2022 until the Chinese government confirms Peng’s safety and undertakes to investigate her allegations.

It is rare to see a government, organization or company take such a hard line against the Chinese government, but in an interview with CNN, WTA Chairman Steve Simon described the issue as a case of “right and wrong”.

Palazzo says that more companies may need to think like this in the future.

– The discussion shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies to behave as if they could be politically neutral. It is no longer possible, he says.

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