Beijing on Friday won its U.S.$1.5 billion bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in spite of widespread warnings from the country’s human rights activists and ethnic minorities of a worsening climate for human rights and the likelihood of more abuses to come.
IOC President Thomas Bach made the announcement at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur after the IOC voted on presentations by Beijing, which will likely rely on man-made snow for the event, and Kazakhstan's former capital, Almaty.
Beijing received 44 votes to Almaty’s 40, making it the first city to hold both a Winter and a Summer Games, the IOC said in a statement on its website shortly after the vote.
Beijing’s presentation to the IOC on Friday showed a slick time-lapse montages of busy cities, Chinese medalists winning at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, as well as a snow-covered Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Great Wall, in an apparent bid to ward off criticism that the country has no serious snow suitable for winter sports.
Almaty’s bid, meanwhile, focused on the widespread popular enjoyment of winter sports among ordinary people, showing men, women and children checking out ski equipment and enjoying winter sports amid thick blankets of snow.
While IOC Vice President Yu Zaiqing said the bid represented “the Chinese people’s passion” for the Winter Olympics, the Chinese delegation included some of their most successful medalists from previous Olympics and World Championships, all of whom were handpicked and fast-tracked by a state-backed training regime that critics say has little to do with public involvement in sport.
'Slap in the face'
The decision comes after international rights groups, activists in China and ethnic minority groups representing Tibetans and mostly Muslim Uyghurs, made repeated appeals to the IOC not to award China the Games, citing a slew of repressive measures surrounding the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
“[The] awarding of the 2022 Olympics to China is a slap in the face to China’s besieged human rights activists,” Sophie Richardson, China director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), tweeted in reaction to Friday's announcement.
“In choosing China, the IOC just failed the first test of its own new human rights commitments,” Richardson told RFA in written comments by private message.
“Discrimination, labor abuses, ever expanding restrictions on the freedom of expression, China has it all,” she said.
Even before the decision was announced, there were signs that the authorities are beginning to search out those who speak out against the Games for questioning and intimidation.
Beijing-based rights activist Du Yanlin was among 40 Chinese activists who signed an open letter opposing the Winter Games, an act which in itself put him at risk of official harassment and retaliation.
“The police showed me the documents related to the petition, and asked me what it was,” Du told RFA in an interview ahead of the IOC vote. “They said that their leaders were furious when they saw it, because I’m still out on bail.”
“They said there weren’t many people in China [who dared to oppose the Games] and that I was the worst, even worse than [Beijing rights activist] Hu Jia.”
Hu, who has also spoken out against China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics, served a three-and-a-half-year jail term for "incitement to subversion" after he wrote online articles critical of Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Summer Games.
Du said he is now under police surveillance, including of his mobile phone and social media accounts.
“China’s human rights situation has got worse and worse since the [last] Olympics,” he said.
“For China to host an Olympic Games is a humiliation for the Olympic spirit.”
Bracing for arrest
HRW spokeswoman Minky Worden said in a video statement that Beijing’s winning bid comes amid “the worst crackdown on human rights in China in more than two decades.”
“Ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, HRW documented forced evictions without compensation, migrant labor abuses building stadiums like the Bird’s Nest, crushing of civil society and arrests of activists, and journalists being threatened and intimidated,” she said.
A HRW report on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics cited a number of human rights concerns linked to the event, including the eviction of local residents without compensation, the destruction of drinking wells, and the exploitation of migrant workers.
Activists and journalists who sought to criticize or document Olympics-related abuse faced pressure, harassment, and in some cases, arrest and prosecution, it said.
Germany based journalist Su Yutong said she was “extremely disappointed, even angry” at the result.
“Everyone knows that we are in the middle of an extremely serious human rights crackdown that is unprecedented internationally,” Su said. “Hundreds of rights lawyers have been detained, called for questioning, terrorized and threatened.”
“Actually there should have been a lot of lessons learned from the 2008 Olympics … and we are naturally disappointed that the IOC can’t see that,” she said.
According to Hubei-based rights activist Hu Junxiong, the entire bid is about boosting the prestige of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“They are doing it for their own prestige, and they hope to achieve international recognition by doing this sort of thing,” Hu Junxiong said. “They want to be able to say that the whole world has given us the Olympics to host, and that means China is respected, and that its government is legitimate.”
Beijing said it aims to use the Games to accelerate the development of a new sport, culture and tourism area, and to encourage interest in winter sports in a region that is home to more than 300 million people in northern China.
“Thanks to an additional contribution from the IOC of approximately 880 million US dollars to support the staging of the Olympic Winter Games in 2022, Beijing is confident that it will either break even or make a profit,” the IOC statement said.
The newly published host city contract for the 2022 Winter Olympics, signed by Chinese officials shortly after the announcement, makes dozens of mentions of the word “rights,” but in the context of commercial rights such as broadcasting or intellectual property.
Back in China, Hu Junxiong said he has made mental preparation to be targeted by police as a direct result of his public opposition to the Games.
“I’m not afraid. If they want to arrest me, they'll arrest me,” he said. “I wanted to say this because I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Reported by Wen Yuqing and Wong Si-lam for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.