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Because cultures are so different from country to country, the world often feels like it is made up of many separate worlds within. The Olympic Games are one of the few events that bring people from all around the world to one place. 

In the Olympics, each participating country has the opportunity to showcase its citizens’ athletic abilities. This blending of many cultures into one 3,000-year-old tradition gives humankind the opportunity to honor one another’s accomplishments, as well as appreciate our similarities and differences. 

Because of this, being the host country of the Olympics comes packaged with a great deal of pride. Countries strive to be the host not only because it is an honor, but also for the purposes of increased tourism and foreign investment. The benefits of hosting, however, do also come with drawbacks. The cost of infrastructure, consultants, event organizers and travel can become a great economic burden on a nation.

The process of choosing the host country involves a competitive bid to the International Olympics Committee. The IOC further investigates these bids to decide whether each interested country has what it takes to host. The committee members ultimately vote by secret ballot to determine who will host the Games.

Aside from the occasional allegation of corruption, this system of choosing a host country has generally worked in the past. This year, however, the location of the Olympics has become a greater controversy than ever before. With Beijing, China as the host, many countries, including the United States and Canada, have gone as far as coordinating diplomatic boycotts of the Games.

You might ask, why such adverse reactions? To understand the root of the issue, we must first travel back in time. 

China’s largest administrative region is called Xinjiang and much of the region’s population is Uighur, a Turkish ethnic group native to the region. Xinjiang officially became part of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and tried many times to separate from it in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Chinese government, however, made sure to suppress this activism. 

Conflicts between the Uyghurs and the Chinese state have deepened over time due to ethnic tensions. With an increasing number of non-Uyghurs moving into Xinjiang, the Uyghurs feel that they are becoming increasingly marginalized in an area where they lived first. China, on the other hand, wants to keep this region for its economic importance, as well as for its political sensitivity — Xinjiang borders eight other countries.

In an effort to make Xinjiang more culturally cohesive with the rest of China, the Chinese government has been driving the Uyghur culture out of Xinjiang in every way it can — including by targeting their religion. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang are Sunni Muslims, so the Chinese state has placed severe restrictions on Islam by allowing fewer mosques, strictly controlling religious schools and banning fasting during the holy month of Ramadan

Other efforts to suppress the Uyghurs include forced contraception. Those who do not comply with taking birth control or getting an abortion are forced to attend “re-education” centers to “learn job skills.” In reality, the centers are internment camps. These camps constitute the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II. 

Because of these human rights abuses, which are further detailed in the leaked China Cables documents, the fact that the 2022 Olympics are being held in China is very problematic to some people. Many feel that the IOC is being compliant with these abuses by allowing Beijing to host.  

China has tried to quell the controversy as much as it can. They are keeping athletes silent by threatening to subject them to an unspecified punishment under Chinese law if they participate in any protests that violate “the Olympic spirit” — an ultimately vague concept. This has created fear for the rest of the world’s athletes. 

Additional restrictions have been placed on members of the media as well. Media members in Beijing for Olympic coverage are restricted to designated areas from which they can report. COVID-19 travel restrictions have also made it increasingly difficult for media members to travel within China. The Committee to Protect Journalists has warned journalists in Beijing they should protect data in their electronics as their devices are being monitored and their hotel rooms may be under surveillance as well. 

China has also discouraged “politicization of sports” in an effort to further curb the protests and controversy. This is a fair statement to consider as, time and time again, the United States has tried to act as the policemen of the world even when it is not necessarily our place. The United States is not unfamiliar with using the Olympics as a political platform, either. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were famously boycotted by a U.S.-led coalition in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. 

We must avoid those same mistakes in addressing the genocide in China. The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of peace. Is it our place to voice our political resentment for China at the most important sporting event in the world? Or is it our moral obligation to boycott the Olympics to stand against what the State Department has labeled as genocide?

Opinions on this issue vary from person to person. However, most of us can agree that the human rights abuses occurring in China are a horrifying portrayal of mankind. For as much as we have learned from the past regarding genocide of various groups of people solely based on their identities, it is appalling to know it is happening again.

Whether you believe hosting the Olympics in Beijing is morally permissible or not, we must work as a nation to find our position on this issue. Once again, the United States is left to walk on eggshells — trying to stand against injustice without unfairly imposing our will on a sovereign nation or disrupting one of the few events that sees the world peacefully united. Undeniably, the Uyghurs in China need help. 

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.