Facing Olympic boycott calls, China presses U.S. companies to speak up in its defense

China is pressuring American companies to push back against campaigns to boycott the Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid heightened scrutiny of human rights abuses in the country.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng on Tuesday told a video conference of U.S. business executives to “make a positive contribution” to the Games, which open in February.

“Boycotting the Olympics for political reasons harms the interests of athletes, violates the shared ideals and aspirations of the international society, and is unpopular,” Xie said. President Biden has confirmed that the White House is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

The outreach by China comes amid signs that foreign businesses, long compliant with official demands for quiescence, are waking up to the reputational damage from staying silent at a time of intensifying repression. The global outcry over Peng Shuai’s treatment after she indicted a former top Chinese leader for sexual abuse has fueled concerns about censorship, the suppression of women and calls to boycott the Games.

Attended by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the U.S.-China Business Council, the event was part of efforts by Beijing to prevent the relationship from deteriorating beyond what is already its worst point since diplomatic ties were established.

Xie declared that a virtual summit last month between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had sent a strong signal that the relationship needed to be mended. Beijing continues to rebuff all suggestions of wrongdoing regarding military aggression against Taiwan, a crackdown in civil liberties in Hong Kong, mass internment Uyghurs in the Xinjiang area and a crackdown upon civil liberties.

“Everyone must be clear that Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet are core interests that touch upon China’s sovereignty and secure development,” Xie told the American executives. “China does not have any room to compromise.”

The call for multinationals to support Beijing’s position comes as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced that it was suspending tournaments in China because of concerns about Peng’s safety.

On Nov. 2, Peng accused retired Chinese Communist Party vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into a sexual relationship. Peng disappeared from the internet for two weeks after her post was removed.

After an international outcry, she reemerged in carefully curated posts from Chinese state media and spoke via video with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. These reports weren’t shared via China’s highly censored social media. Peng is still silent.

The appearances have not satisfied human rights groups, which see parallels between Peng’s case and those of dozens of activists and dissidents previously forced to confess and recant on state media.

In response to the WTA’s decision, the Chinese Tennis Association on Thursday expressed “indignation” at what it labeled a “unilateral action” based on “fictitious information.”

“It not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself, but also will severely harm the female tennis players’ fair opportunities to compete, then damage the interest of the entire sport of tennis,” the association said, without naming Peng or mentioning her post.

On Dec. 1, the Women’s Tennis Association said it is suspending all tournaments in China and Hong Kong amid concerns over Peng’s safety and well-being. (Reuters)

The statement was delivered only in English to state media outlets responsible for pushing Beijing’s messaging to the outside world and was not posted on the association’s website or in Chinese media. This was in line with a series of Chinese replies about Peng’s death that were only for external consumption.

Within China, there has been little discussion of the WTA’s decision. The WTA’s official Weibo account did not mention the suspension of tournament. Users were also blocked from viewing or making comments on recent posts by the platform, which is a form of softcensorship.

Human rights groups and sports icons heralded the WTA’s decision not to back down under Beijing’s pressure. Former world tennis champion and social activist Billie Jean King tweeted, “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.”

As scrutiny of abuses in China mounts, multinational companies and international institutions have repeatedly found themselves facing pressure from both concerned human rights activists and Chinese officials.

Combined with strict laws on data protection and the lingering China-U.S. trade dispute, that challenging political environment is forcing a rethink by companies that once saw China’s market as irresistible.

Business executives that remain committed to China, however, continue to defend the Chinese leadership and backtrack rapidly if they offend Beijing, intentionally or otherwise.

A day after JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon joked last week that the company might outlast the Chinese Communist Party, adding “I can’t say that in China,” he released a statement saying he regretted the remarks, conceding “it’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people.”

Dalio, a long time believer that China sits at the center of global economic growth, added that the Chinese leadership behaved like a “strict parent” toward Chinese people. He said that the Chinese leadership is a strict parent to their people, regardless of what they do in terms of calling them in and behaving in certain ways.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bridgewater Associates has raised the equivalent of $1. 25 billion for its third investment fund in China.

Alicia Chen and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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