The flame of an Olympic torch must pass through multiple countries to arrive at its final destination. So too must the supply chains financing and profiting off the games. Throughout the processions that just ended, activists protested the ceremonies. They called for boycotts of the games and better awareness of the actions of the Chinese state, most prominently the detention of the Uyghur Turkic minorities, Tibetan policing and oppression, and the Hong Kong National Security Law.
Last December, in response to the concerns raised by these protests, the White House decided to bar American diplomats from attending the games. The games “cannot be business as usual,” press secretary Jen Psaki said during the announcement of the boycott. Along with the United States, the governments of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia also pulled diplomats from attending the games.
But when it comes to sponsorship and institutional corporate collusion, including in the technology sectors contributing to the surveillance crisis, business does go on as usual.
Firms such as Intel, Airbnb, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and others feature prominently in sponsorship of these Winter Olympics. As strategically important American brands, they own prominent ad space within the much-desired Chinese market. In turn, Chinese consumer activity levels are boosted by their commercial transactions, maintaining economic productivity and growth.
Banners emblazoned with American sponsors will still proudly fly over various event spaces. Money flows to the coffers of sponsor corporations. As the games begin, the reluctance to operate under anything besides business-as-usual shows broader commercial interests and their political consequences.
Beijing 2022 is not the first Olympics where human rights crises coincide with the capitalistic drive to hold, promote, and celebrate the games apolitically. The 2014 Sochi games faced protests over anti-LGBT laws, and during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazilians took to the streets in anger over economic concerns and criticism of then-president Michael Teme.
Like earlier games, Beijing 2022 will be protected by the IOC Charter’s rule 50, which bans political protest during competition spaces. However, even if this weren’t the case, Chinese domestic standards of censorship and rules of public conduct make the state’s demands clear both to Chinese organizers and international athletes. In contrast to other host countries simply limiting locations of protests, Chinese protest and public gathering laws have long cracked down harshly on domestic gatherings of labor rallies, angry consumer groups, and other organizing efforts. Repression within civic society and on ethnic minorities have intensified, and the patriotic support of CCP chair Xi Jinping is mandated as a default political stance.
"Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected and anything and any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” said Beijing 2022 deputy director Yang Shu. This mindset applies not only to public speech, but may also be monitored in private. An app that all athletes must download has prepared a censored keyword list, presently inactive but still visible to technologists.
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Despite the diplomatic boycott, American government entities have stopped shy of questioning the IOC’s apolitical politics that have benefitted the Chinese state and its Olympics operations. And while diplomacy at Beijing 2022 may be different, the American private sector maintains its large degree of leverage over business operations.
Diplomatic attendance of ceremonies is a problem of public image, but corporate engagement holds additional, and much stronger, economic ramifications. The 2022 games’ diplomat-only boycott problem perpetuates the fiction that Chinese firms are alone in their responsibility and culpability in the human rights problems advocates have raised.
In both China and the United States, the major Olympic sponsors hold considerable market shares in their respective sectors, and remain politically connected to American political leaders. For many, their operations in China remain tied to the Xinjiang region and its political state of affairs, including what the State Department has described as crimes against humanity.
Coca-Cola, which holds extensive bottling investment and distribution commitments in its Chinese branches, lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which named one of its sugar suppliers as allegedly linked to forced labor. Sportswear giant Nike also pushed back on allegations of forced labor in its textile operations, asserting that it conducted audits on its supply chain partners for shoes and clothing.
Technology is even more closely linked to Chinese political ambitions and standards. Tesla operates storefronts in Xinjiang. Airbnb has been profiting off listings in Xinjiang to majority Han ethnic vacationers while denying lodging to Uyghurs and other minorities. When asked about the possibility of American government pressure on business in Xinjiang, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price indicated no such plans were in the works. He said: “The private sector has at its fingertips—and this includes American companies—a large volume of information of the concerns that the United States has put forward, that we have put forward together with our partners and our allies. And it is up to them to make their own decisions about their practices in relation to what we have very clearly said is ongoing in Xinjiang.” In short, a government position— beyond disappointment with firms operating as sponsors or business partners to the games— has yet to emerge.
In these types of spaces, investment leaders have talked more about decoupling from problematic Chinese policies than taken concrete actions to do so. Digital platforms such as Amazon often use the guise of U.S.-China competition to fight antitrust oversight hearings while complying with Chinese government requests to shut down negative reviews of Xi Jinping’s book. Sanctions on Chinese corporations have linked Chinese technology developers of hardware and data solutions to Xinjiang law enforcement, but the bulk of American state actions still stop short of even censuring, or limiting, activities by American firms.
Fundamentally, access to the Chinese market has become a rote excuse for businesses to avoid action. These corporations, which tout innovation and business ingenuity to financial stakeholders, boast about their unique strategic acumen while simultaneously deciding that supplying, servicing, and continuing business under surveillance is an acceptable value.
This link has been forged not simply through market interests but through the cultures of corporate work in and adjacent to surveillance technology. Researchers of the Xinjiang crisis who scrutinize the companies building its cameras, databases, and policing technology find more similarities with American technology firms than differences.
In their book Blockchain Chicken Farm, writer Xiaowei Wang visits the headquarters of facial recognition firm Megvii, which powers Xinjiang’s surveillance systems, and notes the international education and banal corporate culture of white-collar employees there: “It would have been easy to believe the company behind China’s Skynet had a Soviet-era secrecy … at least then a person, a company, a country could serve as the symbol of sinister surveillance. Instead I was met with a total indifferent openness combined with the dry, surgical threat of a nondisclosure agreement. It didn’t remind me of Silicon Valley. It was Silicon Valley.”
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Xinjiang specialist Darren Byler agrees, noting in his monograph In the Camps that Megvii’s growth depended on alumni from Seattle technology powerhouses like Microsoft and Adobe, and that “[staffers] weren’t secretly trying to undermine American values or threaten the future of human autonomy … like most tech workers they thought they were making the world a better place.” Through Silicon Valley and Seattle, the ideas of facial recognition and the processing of surveillance data is modernized and made more efficient constantly.
Whether the resulting projects are bought by Western governments or Chinese governments depends on who specific firms are on good terms with. For Canada and the United States, Clearview AI assists law enforcement while Megvii accelerates the efficiency of Chinese police departments’ capacity to track and classify groups they wish to track. While not wholly comparable, the technology trend normalizes the banality of corporate culture that best characterizes both the makers of surveillance products in China and the firms directly or indirectly partnering with them overseas. In Chinese firms, the expectation of compliance is the default. Foreign corporations that do not comply face similar expectations to continue powering Chinese security interests.
Intel, a 2022 games sponsor, learned such a lesson when it issued an annual letter to suppliers explaining that because “multiple governments” have implemented restrictions, “Intel is required to ensure our supply chain does not use any lay labor or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region.” In the aftermath, the firm apologized to “our respected Chinese customers, partners, and the public,” insisting that the decision was a matter of compliance with American law, and not a distinct corporate position.
The controversy drew comment from White House, with Psaki stating “as a general matter that we believe the private sector and the international community should oppose the PRC’s weaponizing of its markets to stifle support for human rights.” However, State spokesperson Ned Price’s words still indicate the limits of American state action on that front. He emphasized that “it is not, in this country, unlike other countries, the role of the government to dictate the practices that the private sector should adopt.”
Looking beyond the Olympics, China’s leaders yearn for a completely self-sufficient technology sector, bolstered by a globally competitive economic ecosystem. However, its politics and economic interests still currently require the global economy. Corporations involved in the games and in China beyond will be choosing to participate in the banal but consequential processes of surveillance, commerce, and advancement of political interests. Even firms unrelated to the high-tech tools continue to supply capital, talent exchange, and brand legitimacy. They too operate under the guise of political neutrality.
In the lead-up to Beijing 2022, athletes used their personal platforms to express dissenting viewpoints on China’s law enforcement and politics, occupying airtime that is monetized for sponsor profit. Prior to the games, pairs skater Timothy LeDuc addressed the moral capacity of athletes to self-educate and speak up about human rights issues in home countries and abroad. Though the cameras will be on LeDuc and other Olympians to write their athletic stories, it’s still corporate money and lobbying power that does the talking to state interests, be they American or Chinese.
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