Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics becoming a flash point over forced labor in Xinjiang

Aarthi Swaminathan
·3 min read

As tensions rise between the U.S. and China over Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, one analyst thinks that Western countries will likely protest the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

"Our call is that the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia are at this point pretty likely to engage in a diplomatic boycott," Allison Sherlock, a China associate at the Eurasia Group, told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). That would mean that while "athletes from the big countries would still attend, ... there would be some efforts to delegitimize Beijing as the hosts. For example, Biden and others declining to attend the games and even having the diplomat sit out on the opening ceremony."

China faces intense criticism and sanctions for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a northwestern region with the country. The region produces 85% of China's cotton, according to the New York Times, and is also resource-rich in terms of gas, coal, oil, and other mineral products. 

Xinjiang red highlighted in map of China
Xinjiang red highlighted in map of China. (Getty)

"The People's Republic of China has arbitrarily detained more than one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in China's far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," the U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) stated. "It is estimated that 100,000 Uyghurs and other ethnic minority ex-detainees in China may be working in conditions of forced labor following detention in re-education camps."

The Biden administration recently characterized the treatment of Uyghurs and other minority groups as "genocide" in an annual human rights report.

Sherlock noted that the Biden administration is "taking the view that China is a strategic competitor and taking on China on human rights issues is one of the few issues right now in Washington where there's strong bipartisan consensus. We've seen increasing calls from both sides of the aisle to take this opportunity, this symbolic opportunity, to stand up to China."

A farmer picks up cotton from a field in Hami, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, November 1, 2012. China is expected to harvest 6.9 million tonnes of cotton this year, a decline of 4.2 percent from a year ago, due to a smaller sowing area, an official from the country's top planning agency said in remarks published on October 9. Picture taken November 1, 2012. REUTERS/China Daily (CHINA - Tags: AGRICULTURE BUSINESS) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA
A farmer picks up cotton from a field in Hami, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, November 1, 2012. REUTERS/China Daily

Multinational companies that rely on cotton from Xinjiang are finding it a far more complicated affair when taking a firm stance against importing Xinjiang supply chains.

Companies "can't please both sides because you have consumers in China who are willing to boycott Western brands," Sherlock explained. "On the other side, you have U.S. lawmakers trying to crack down on ... imports of goods made in Xinjiang."

Consequently, she added, "it's really become quite difficult for companies and really their only option here is to join together and at least come up with a coherent joint statement on why they're supporting the [Olympic] athletes."

As for any economic damage from potential diplomatic protests related to the Winter Olympics, Sherlock noted that "for Beijing, this would be a hit that they could very easily absorb."

Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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