Last week at the Olympics, despite the dogged efforts of Vice President Pence, human rights promotion lost out to intrigue as the world fawned over Kim Yo Jong, North Korea’s chief of propaganda and sister to dictator Kim Jong Un. But this year’s games are just the latest evidence the world has stopped viewing these international events as opportunities to highlight liberal values.
The power of the Olympics to be a platform for human rights advocacy was decimated after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when the Chinese government reneged on its promises by perpetrating a crackdown while the world stood idly by. Now, 10 years later, the Chinese Communist Party is exporting its anti-human-rights policies to free societies.
On Wednesday, a Tibetan filmmaker who was jailed after reporting on China’s 2008 pre-Olympic crackdown will testify on Capitol Hill about the ongoing repression of Tibetans and the worldwide decline of human rights advocacy. The hearing will also focus on Chinese Communist Party efforts to suppress criticism by threatening Americans and American organizations.
“When China secured their bid for the Olympics, it was very clear they were going to use the Olympics as a chance to showcase how they had freedoms and human rights, including in Tibet,” the filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, told me. “I wanted to show that actually there were no freedoms and human rights in Tibet, and this was an opportunity to do that.”
In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing games, Wangchen interviewed more than 100 ordinary Tibetans about their situation, which resulted in the film “Leaving Fear Behind.” He was promptly arrested by Chinese authorities and thrown in jail, later being sentenced to six years in prison with little due process.
During his incarceration, Wangchen says he was brutally tortured and subjected to forced labor. When he was released in 2014, he was told he was still a “prisoner” and was kept under strict surveillance and constantly harassed by authorities seeking information on his friends and family.
Meanwhile, since 2008, Chinese repression of all types against Tibetans in Tibet has drastically increased. Under the rubric of development and security, the Chinese government has bulldozed hundreds of Tibetan religious and cultural sites, devastated the natural environment, displaced thousands of Tibetan workers with Han Chinese imports, and instituted a system of electronic and human tracking and surveillance. About 150 Tibetans have self-immolated as a form of nonviolent protest in the past decade.
Last December, Wangchen decided he couldn’t live under those conditions. Denied a passport, he decided to secretly escape Tibet with the help of activists in the United States. He is now living in San Francisco and is working to secure permanent residence in the United States. He will testify that international attention to human rights, especially in China, is falling as countries prioritize economics and trade.
“It’s very important for the international community not to let China’s economic power take over,” he told me. “The United States is the country that a lot of Tibetans look to.” Wangchen is working with the International Campaign For Tibet to push legislation calling for foreigners to have the same access to Tibet that Chinese officials who oversee Tibet have here.
Wednesday’s hearing, held by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, is titled “Tibet From All Angles.” The title of the hearing refers to a quote from the Dalai Lama, which reads in full: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”
Only last week, the Chinese government complained loudly when Mercedes-Benz used that exact quote in an advertisement on Instagram. The company quickly apologized for what it called an “extremely erroneous message” and promised to “regulate our behavior” in the future.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who co-chairs the commission, told me Mercedez-Benz’s reaction was exactly the wrong way to respond to Chinese attempts to export its internal censorship and pressure Western companies to toe the Communist Party line. Marriott came under similar criticism last month when it apologized for a questionnaire that mentioned Tibet and fired an employee for liking a tweet about it.
“The Chinese play hardball on these things,” Rubio said. “They most certainly will threaten your business interests even if an individual who works for you promotes a narrative they are sensitive to.”
Chinese threats to American companies are only one small piece of a comprehensive, coordinated Communist Party campaign to snuff out any critical discussion of China in other countries. That effort includes funding American academic institutions and working Congress to counter criticism of Chinese policies.
“They’re trying to pull in the international community towards the Chinese vision for the world, which is one that plays down Western democratic values, calls alliances into question and steers us away from human rights and universal values,” Rubio said.
North Korea may have scored a propaganda victory in PyeongChang, but those who insist on keeping human rights in the public discussion are not going away. They have four years to prepare for the next Olympics opportunity when China hosts the Winter Games in 2022.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security.