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China: 'The economics behind the Games keep them going' amid human rights abuses, reporter says

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HBO Real Sports Title Reporter Isobel Yeung joins Yahoo Finance Live to address the human rights abuses being conducted by China ahead of the Winter Olympic Games, what it says to participate in these Olympics, and China's economic presence.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Well, the 2022 Winter Olympics are ready to start in Beijing on Friday, but not without the cloud of human rights abuses by the Chinese government hanging heavy over those games. Isobel Yeung as a reporter at HBO Real Sports, and she joins us now. Isabel, thanks so much for being with us. And I know in your work, you've been exploring this troubling relationship, really, between the International Olympic Committee and China's campaign of repression. Just tell us briefly what you have found.

ISOBEL YEUNG: Yeah, I mean, as you said, the Olympics are going ahead. The opening ceremony is tomorrow. And that is despite everything. A lot has been thrown at this Olympics. Obviously, there's the situation with COVID. But more disturbingly, there are mass human rights abuses. There are huge crimes against humanity taking place at the moment in the area of Xinjiang in Northwestern China, which is where 12 million or so Muslim Uyghurs live.

This is an ethnic minority which has had an enormous crackdown over the last few years. 1 to 2 million of them have been rounded up and put inside what they call re-education camps, which are essentially high-security prisons. This is the strictest surveillance state in the world right now. Women have been forced to go through sterilization. Children have been separated from their family members. This is an enormous scale of a crackdown. The US and other nations have called this cultural genocide.

- And China denies all of these allegations, right? So how does it justify all of these camps? And then the IOC promotes tolerance, so how does it justify not doing anything in response to what's going on?

ISOBEL YEUNG: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the question. The IOC says that they are a force for good, but at the same time, they say that it's important for them to maintain political neutrality and that they don't want to get involved in politics and that they are not a governing body. They are a sports organization. But a lot of activists would say that that's just not good enough. And when you're talking about mass crimes against humanity, it is time to speak up. And there's a huge amount of disappointment from the Uyghur community as well as from other communities in Hong Kong and Tibet and others who have faced the authoritarian regime of the PRC.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Isobel, what kind of signal do you think this sends the world, the fact that we're allowing-- the US, along with many other countries-- allowing these winter Olympic games to be hosted by Beijing? Does it tell the world that somehow, we're supporting this, that Xi Jinping's government is normal?

ISOBEL YEUNG: Well, I think it depends who you ask. The US, Australia, the UK, and Canada, other countries, are going through a diplomatic boycott of the games. And so they're not sending any government officials to actually be there and to be representing the countries. However, obviously, yes, these games are going ahead. I mean, I think that speaks to the fact that China does have incredible economic and political power right now. It is one of the two major superpowers in the world.

And it is capable of throwing its weight around. I was living in China back in 2008 when the last Summer Olympics were held there, and there was a huge amount of excitement. And there was also China making promises to improve its human rights track record. No such promises are being made right now. And so I think that speaks to the level of influence and power that China has globally right now.

- How much of a leg up do you think something like this gives China? Because it gives them the spotlight. Xi and Putin are meeting tomorrow to strengthen their alliance. And China has increased its aggression towards Taiwan. Is this another foot forward in them gaining more control over that issue?

ISOBEL YEUNG: I mean, I think that on an international scale, there's a lot of criticism right now over China. I don't think there's been an Olympic games quite like this. I mean, there is huge amounts of critiques over their handling of the Uyghurs, over their handling of the tennis star Peng Shuai more recently, as well as what's happened in Hong Kong and Tibet.

Having said that, I think that domestically, it's a massive propaganda win for China. I'm sure that the games are obviously going ahead and that they will be spectacular. And I think it really solidifies China's position on the global stage and makes sure that they are in the spotlight, as you said.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Isabel, here at Yahoo Finance, from our lens, we take a look at the corporate sponsors of this game. I don't know how much you can speak to this. But you've got big names, right? Toyota, Visa, Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel. The list goes on among the sponsors of these games. How important is it for them to speak out against these human rights issues? And perhaps they do that with their wallet and not sponsor these games at all.

ISOBEL YEUNG: Yeah, well, we haven't seen much of that given that China is obviously a massive, massive market and it has huge potential for a lot of these international brands. So yeah, a lot of these brands have gone there and are not speaking up. In fact, they're staying very silent. And I think that, again, speaks to China's political and economic influence.

More disturbingly, I would say, there are also domestic sponsors who are directly linked to the repression that is happening in Xinjiang. So we've seen brands like Anta Sports, which proudly sources their cotton from Xinjiang. A lot of Xinjiang cotton is banned elsewhere in the world because of the record of forced Uyghur labor that is used to produce this cotton.

iFlytek is another domestic sponsor of the games which will be making automated translation services for the games. This is a company that has reportedly been involved in the repression of Uyghurs directly by providing the-- providing the technology to take iris scans of Uyghurs so that the Chinese Communist Party can better track them. So I think that the economics behind the games is something which keeps the games going, which keeps China very much at the forefront of hosting the games and future events, and also is very effective at keeping brands, keeping individuals, and keeping nations, quite frankly, silent on the abuses.

- And Isobel, beneath the glitz and glam of the games is an issue that's close to my heart because China has systematically been desecrating democracy in Hong Kong, which is my hometown. It's where I'm from. And I feel like the athletes are being held hostage, in a way, to help cover it up. Should they be in that position, and should they be speaking up more themselves?

ISOBEL YEUNG: Yeah, I mean, I also have roots in Hong Kong, so I feel your pain. I think that it's a very difficult situation for athletes to be in. On the one hand, it is a glorious event, and there's a lot to celebrate about seeing such skills and such unity on display. On the other hand, China has made not-so-subtle suggestions that athletes are not welcome to speak up about human rights abuses and that it is going to be very difficult for them.

And I think as public figures, it is very difficult. You face losing sponsors. You face losing a foothold in one of the biggest markets in the world. So I think it's a difficult spot. And it's, frankly, a lot of people would say, an unfair spot for athletes to be put in.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Yes indeed. And the world will be watching. Isobel Yeung-- and it's important conversation to have. Thank you for bringing your perspective. Again, it's on HBO "Real Sports." A lot of great reporting coming out of that show. Thanks so much.

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