When Chinese leaders came under pressure to answer questions about the health and plight of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, they turned to a friendly face.
They video-appealed Ms. Peng with members of the International Olympic Committee, a world sports organization that for years has overlooked Beijing’s human rights record. True to their reputation, IOC officials did not question her about her claim that she was sexually assaulted by a powerful former Communist Party leader, an allegation that led censors to erase details from the Chinese internet.
Perhaps no international organization has a more symbiotic relationship with Beijing. The Chinese government views its growing success in the sport as a symbol of the country’s rise as a world power. The 2008 Beijing Olympics helped transform China’s global image, a feat the government hopes to replicate next month when the Winter Olympics begin near the same city.
In return, Beijing provided the IOC with access to 1.4 billion potential sports fans and heaps of cash. In 2014, state broadcaster China Central Television signed a broadcast agreement with the IOC that SportBusiness, an information and data service, is estimated to be worth around $ 550 million. China also brought business access, such as a sponsorship deal with e-commerce giant Alibaba, which Bloomberg said was worth $ 800 million.
China’s relationship with the Olympics could be best exemplified by Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, who led the IOC for two decades, and the foundation in China that bears his name.
The Samaranch Foundation was founded by his son, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is also Chairman of the IOC Coordination Committee for the Beijing 2022 Games, and counts the IOC as a founding partner. The foundation, which has the three Chinese IOC members on its board of directors, is dedicated to carrying on the legacy of the elder Mr. Samaranch of wooing China, which made him a hero there.
He also carried on his legacy of softening China’s troubling conduct. In September 2018, as rumors circulated that as many as one million members of majority Muslim minority groups were being held in internment camps and prisons in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, the foundation organized an event there. charity football. He also organized events in Tibet, despite a longstanding religious repression.
“The IOC keeps saying that this is a politically neutral organization and that it wants to stay out of politics,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. “But it totally ignores the fact that it has always been used as a political tool by the Chinese government to legitimize its position and policies, including crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
In written comments, the IOC said the Samaranch Foundation operates independently of the committee. The Samaranch Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
The IOC also defended its discussions with Ms Peng, a former Olympian, and called the critics “silly”. Thomas Bach, IOC President, spoke of the importance of “political neutrality” for his organization. “We can only accomplish our mission to unite the world if the Olympics transcend all political differences,” he said in a speech.
Jules Boykoff, professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Oregon, said the IOC’s position only emboldened China’s leadership.
“The IOC generally hides behind the thin canvas of political neutrality,” said Mr. Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics”. “In the case of Peng Shuai, Bach actively exercised political interference for the Chinese political authorities. “
He added: “Bach’s willful gullibility in this case is an important pivot point.”
After the IOC issued a statement claiming Ms. Peng was “safe and healthy,” several Twitter users commented in Chinese that Mr. Bach reminded them of Elder Samaranch, “China’s old friend.” It was also my reaction.
The IOC has been on a slippery moral slope when it comes to China since Mr. Samaranch Sr. was president from 1980 to 2001. The country gave him credit for helping Beijing win its bid to host the IOC. 2008 Games. His image and voice were so ubiquitous on Chinese television that he was known as “Grandpa Samaranch” to children who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s.
He defended China despite widespread criticism of its poor human rights record and the suppression of free speech.
“The Chinese are people with long memories and know how to show their deep sense of loyalty to people who, in difficult times, have stood by their side,” Samaranch wrote in a post-Games opinion piece. 2008 Beijing Olympics, “Why I Love and Respect China As Much as I Do,” it was published in a Spanish newspaper, an English-language newspaper in China, and the Chinese edition of his biography.
After his death in 2010, the then Chinese president sent his condolences to the IOC and his family, a gesture usually reserved for heads of state. He called Mr. Samaranch “the old friend and good friend of the Chinese people” and said China will never forget him. Chinese state media have published numerous articles commemorating his friendship with China.
China has built a Samaranch Memorial, comprising a park, the size of 32 American football fields in the port city of Tianjin.
Understanding the disappearance of Peng Shuai
Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star has disappeared from public view for weeks after accusing a top Chinese leader of sexual assault. Recent videos that appear to show Ms. Peng haven’t done much to address concerns about her safety.
The young Mr. Samaranch founded the Samaranch Foundation in 2012 “to secure the Samaranch-China legacy”. It has received donations from the IOC, the Chinese Olympic Committee, the Chinese and Spanish governments, 10 Chinese companies and others.
One of its biggest donors is sportswear maker Anta, which has pledged to continue using cotton from Xinjiang, where forced labor has been used as part of the government crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. The managing director of Anta sits on the foundation’s board of directors.
Mr. Samaranch Jr. is mentioned as one of Mr. Bach’s potential successors in 2025.
The foundation made it clear where its loyalties lie.
He celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in a 2019 article on his website, calling it a “love letter.” Earlier this year, he organized a nationwide red-themed running race for middle school students to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Samaranch Jr. and the foundation he founded speak publicly and shamelessly of their love for China, but he insists that it’s better to be “calm” and “low-key” when it comes to human rights violations in China and Ms. Peng’s allegation.
Pressed to hold the Games in China, he echoed the committee’s position that it must separate sport from politics.
“We must keep this neutrality. It’s too precious what we’re trying to defend, ”he told The Associated Press last month in an online briefing on preparations for the Beijing Games. “We are what we are and we can do what we can do. “
Then, in another online news briefing this week, he insisted on the “need to be low profile” in Ms. Peng’s situation. “Everyone should focus on the welfare of Peng Shuai and not try to use it for other purposes,” he said.
“Don’t take it away from silent diplomacy,” he added. “It’s a very powerful tool and we plan to stick with it. “
His father made the point a long time ago, calling Chinese critics “fear-mongering.” On the contrary, the Chinese government has become much more authoritarian after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But it seems that whatever the case, the Chinese government can count the IOC as a friend.