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The Winter Olympics are being held, again, in an authoritarian state, raising questions for human rights groups and for many American corporations. Nick Schifrin reports on what advocates say about China's exploitation of the Games, as it tries to project the carefully-crafted image its leader wants the world to see.
The Olympic Winter Games are being held again in an authoritarian state, raising questions for human rights groups and for many American corporations.
Nick Schifrin is back now to shed light on what advocates say is China's exploitation of the Games, as it tries to project the carefully crafted image that its leader wants the world to see.
On Chinese state media, local Uyghur herdsmen fly the motherland's flag and send off the pride of the nation, Beijing's Olympians. Happy Uyghur children cheer on their classmates as part of a government effort to embrace winter sports.
Hey, guys. I'm Nancy.
And a Uyghur state media reporter visits the capital of the Uyghur region to showcase how it celebrates the Olympics.
People in Xinjiang always look their life with a happy heart.
Jewher Ilham, Uyghur Activist:
The Chinese government has a history of forcing people to make all sorts of propaganda videos and covering up what they have been doing to the people.
Jewher Ilham is a Uyghur activist and, from her base in Virginia, works with the labor monitoring group, Worker Rights Consortium.
What's really happening in Xinjiang today?
People don't have to write don't have the right to practice their religion, their culture, speak their language. They are held in captivity. And people are not free to see their families or even in touch with their family members.
I haven't heard a word from my father. No family members have been able to visit him.
Nine years ago, Ilham and her father, Ilham Tohti, a well-known Uyghur economist, were about to board a plane to the U.S. when both were detained. Police let her go, but kept her father.
That was my last goodbye to my father. My father was the one that insisted that I should leave. He told me that he'd rather me sweep the street in the U.S. than me staying back in China.
Tohti was found guilty of separatism and sentenced to life.
The U.S. says China has detained more than a million Uyghurs. Many are forced to abandon Islam and their Uyghur language in what Beijing calls reeducation camps, but survivors like Abdusalam Muhammad back in 2019, called prison camps.
Abdusalam Muhammad, Survivor (through translator):
There is unimaginable oppression inside. Every day, they'd toss us a little bread and water, so that we didn't die. And, every day, they would interrogate 15 or 20 of us with unbearable brutality.
Today, activists say the brutality has evolved into forced labor, factories and fields, where Uyghurs work for little to no pay and aren't allowed to go home.
Chinese authorities say their policies keep Xinjiang safe from extremism. They say the labor isn't forced; it's a jobs program and helps Uyghur futures. And they criticize anyone who says otherwise.
Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman (through translator):
Those who fabricate lies on Xinjiang always camouflage themselves with cloaks. No matter what cloak the liars may wear, their disguise is no different from the emperor's new clothes in the face of facts and truth.
But activists say the truth is, forced labor is expanding, to include Olympic merchandise.
The Worker Rights Consortium says Chinese clothing companies Anta and HYX produce IOC clothes with Xinjiang cotton. The IOC says it audited those companies and — quote — "did not find any forced, bonded, indentured, or child labor."
The IOC had not released, disclosed the auditor names or the factories that they have done the audits. And they also only listed two apparel companies, and then stated that there is no forced labor in the Uyghur region. And that is — that's very questionable.
Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch:
The IOC and the Beijing organizers need to be able to say that those products are free from forced labor, and they cannot. The Olympic rings are supposed to be five continents. It's more like five rings of repression.
Minky Worden is the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch and the author of "China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges."
She accuses Beijing of sports-washing its human rights record, including by using a relatively unknown Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic torch.
Civil society leaders, lawyers, women's rights activists, journalists, and others have been arrested. And perhaps worst of all, China has been committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, mass incarceration, torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor.
These are all crimes against humanity that are completely antithetical to the Olympic ideals.
Last week, China's Beijing 2022 spokesman denied any human rights issues.
Zhao Weidong, Spokesperson, Beijing Winter Olympics Organizing Committee (through translator) :
The so-called China human rights issue is a lie made up by people with ulterior motives. Many countries and athletes have expressed their support for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The biggest problem is that the IOC's partner is the Chinese Communist Party in China. And the Chinese government is using these Olympics as a way of saying that the international community supports the repression that it has rolled out in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.
Historically, China didn't always consider Olympic performance or politics important. But, for decades, Beijing has focused on demonstrating strength.
Xu Guoqi,University of Hong Kong: So, the sports became a part of that obsession. So, since then, the Chinese tried to prove to the rest of world China was not sick man of Asia. They could compete.
Professor Xu Guoqi is a historian at the University of Hong Kong. He says now, with the 2008 Games and the 2022 Games, Beijing believes the Olympics show off the country's political and military strength.
International sports has become a major vehicle for China to achieve two major objectives, to search for wealth and power.
That includes power over international companies that sponsor the Olympics. Top sponsors have chosen to stay neutral and maintain their support.
It's a pattern repeated inside Xinjiang, China's Uyghur region. On New Year's Eve, Tesla opened a Xinjiang showroom, and posted photos of the opening ceremony. Elon Musk is Tesla's CEO, and said this of China on a 2020 automotive news podcast:
Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors:
China rocks, in my opinion. The energy in China is great. People there are — there's like a lot of smart, hardworking people, and they really — they're not entitled. They're not complacent, whereas I see, in the United States, increasingly, a — much more complacency and entitlement.
Tesla, which did not respond to requests for comment, also has a Shanghai factory. Its reliance on China reflects overall corporate dependence on Chinese supply chains, especially for the rare earth metals required for everything from cell phones to batteries for electric vehicles.
Brian Menell, Chairman and CEO, TechMet: There's no question that, certainly, the non-Chinese production of Tesla is totally dependent on supply of inputs from China.
Brian Menell is the chairman and CEO of TechMet, a private company trying to secure rare earths ethically and sustainably. But China, often with little regard for human rights, has cornered the rare earths market.
It would be totally irrational for Elon Musk not to manage his position, his relationships in a way that took that into account.
Human rights advocates hope consumer demand can change corporate behavior.
We're at an important watershed moment where companies are not going to be able to put their head in the sand or their heads in the snow, for the corporate sponsors of the Olympics.
Consumers are going to demand to know that their cars or their Coke bottles or their garments aren't made with slave labor in Xinjiang.
For those with family in Xinjiang, freedom required escape and loss.
I remember, at the airport, I was crying, crying. And he told me: "Don't cry in front of them. Don't let them think Uyghur girls are weak."
He said it in Uyghur. He's like: "Be strong, my daughter. You're my daughter. You need to be strong."
What would you say to your dad, if you could talk to him right now?
I might just come up to one sentence: "Daddy, hang in there, I will get you out."
But for Ilham Tohti and so many other Uyghurs targeted by Beijing, there's no way out.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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