In the face of the growing criticism of the decision to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee is digging in: This afternoon, IOC president Thomas Bach announced an agreement with China to provide COVID vaccines for any competitor in the upcoming games in Tokyo (now slated to take place this summer) and Beijing who needs them.
His organization’s partnership with the Chinese Olympic Committee will “make vaccine doses available to [competitors] in whose territories the Chinese vaccines has been approved by the relevant national health authority.”
The 2022 event has already been subject to a chorus calling for it to be moved, or otherwise face some form of boycott, a diverse group that includes top Republican politicians, the Canadian parliament, and a number of human-rights organizations.
If it is ultimately held in Beijing, they worry, it would deliver a major propaganda victory for the Chinese Communist Party, which is in the midst of a drive to eradicate its Turkic populations in the Xinjiang region and undertake similar efforts in Tibet, quash dissent in Hong Kong, and annex Taiwan. Although most critics of the 2022 games rightfully focus on the Uyghur genocide, each of these brazen acts alone is reason enough to move the Olympics.
This major international event would take place in the world’s preeminent threat to human rights, global democracy, and international security, most likely legitimizing the Party’s narratives about China’s place in the world order. This deal helps Beijing build that reputation, distracting from its abhorrent behavior.
As far as vaccines are concerned, Party authorities have long ago forfeited their ability to be viewed as honest brokers, as they have peddled disinformation about the safety of Western vaccines. I wrote about that campaign in January, after Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying amplified false claims about the Pfizer-BioNTech shot:
Hua’s comments elide the key fact here: The vaccines that have been approved in the West are simply more reliable than those offered in China. Whereas, for instance, the Pfizer vaccine is about 95 percent effective, the one offered by Sinovac works 50 percent of the time, according to Brazilian researchers.
And not only does the Chinese party-state spread its own disinformation, it goes after those who speak the truth about the pandemic. The Gazeta do Povo reports that Beijing’s ambassador to Brazil is demanding that the country’s foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, who called the coronavirus the “communist virus,” be fired or that the government otherwise issue a statement lauding Beijing’s assistance. The Chinese negotiators have made this a precondition of receiving further component materials from China that Brazil can use to manufacture the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The International Olympic Committee has, with this announcement, proven itself to be a willing participant in China’s vaccine-diplomacy push. Perhaps the committee could try to justify its cooperation with the Chinese on the grounds that no one else has seemed to have stepped up. Indeed, if the U.S. government is able to get enough shots in arms by the start of the summer, it’d be smart for Washington to embark on its own push to share its considerably safer vaccines with the rest of the world. In fact, it might just begin its own international vaccination campaign, following a virtual meeting of the leaders of the Quad countries (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), as Reuters reported.
But there is still no acceptable justification to work with an authoritarian party-state entity currently carrying out mass atrocities. Bach, who was just reelected to a second term as IOC president, and his colleagues just don’t care. As I noted in October, the IOC’s official position is that “It’s not a political body and doesn’t take a position on human-rights issues. It simply organizes sports events.”
You could say that the committee is more preoccupied with letting the trains run on time.