What the Beijing 2022 Games Taught Us About US–China Relations

There’s nothing quite so unifying as the Olympics. We watched the world’s greatest athletes compete and experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But the conversation surrounding this Winter Olympics was a bit more complicated.

Concerns about China’s human rights violations, athletes’ free speech, and the politics of the International Olympic Committee were swirling around like the snow that didn’t fall in Beijing. Eric Hyer, associate professor of political science at BYU who studies China, has a unique perspective on the situation.

Hyer is the coordinator for Asian Studies at BYU. His knowledge and interest in China foreign policy began as a youth living in Japan and Taiwan and continues through his scholarly work, including his latest book “The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements,” published in 2015.

“The Olympics have always been a political event — that’s just something that comes with the territory — and the Chinese are experts in making a spectacle of national pride,” says Hyer. When China hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they sent the message that China was taking off as a global superpower, a real international leader.

The message was very different this year. With the predominant global economy, China no longer has to prove their power and seemed to be saying, “We are here and you can’t ignore us.” 

“The Chinese have demonstrated now that they’re not going to back down or try to please the United States. They’re going to go their own direction,” says Hyer of China’s global assertiveness in the last decade.

This shift in messaging is especially apparent in the way that Chinese officials are communicating about the human rights violations currently happening in Xinjiang Province. The United States has accused China of committing cultural genocide among the Uyghur population, citing incarceration in re-education camps, restrictions on religious practices, forced sterilization, torture, and forced labor. Chinese officials continue to deny accusations, and refer to U.S. pressures as “political posturing.”

These pressures seemed to be coming to a head at this year’s Olympics, with U.S. officials declaring a diplomatic boycott, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Belgium, and India, among other countries. Hyer believes this boycott may not have the intended effect.

“The Chinese seem to be using this as an example of the United States’ diminishing world power. They’ve responded by saying that the United States tried to organize this big boycott and it just didn’t gain much momentum or influence with very many countries, and they see this as an opportunity to show that the U.S. is not as powerful as it used to be.”

As far as the situation in Xinjiang goes, Hyer has watched things unfold for years. During his research on China’s border disputes in 2006, he published a scholarly article titled, “China’s Policy Toward Uighur Nationalism,” that analyzed the relationship between the Chinese government and the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. 

Hyer expressed the dramatic change in Xinjiang since that article was written. As worldwide concerns about Muslim extremists have grown, China has targeted the Uyghur Muslims as a potential threat to national security measures. Hyer says, “The Chinese are dead set on forcing Uyghurs to essentially forget their language, forget their customs, forget their religion, and embrace being Chinese. It’s a project of total assimilation. And in that sense, it’s cultural genocide.”

Unfortunately, Hyer doesn’t foresee China having a change of heart anytime soon. “The United States and some European allies continue to push human rights, but China just doesn’t respond anymore,” Hyer says. “It’s unfortunate but we’re losing traction when it comes to human rights.”

“It’s a dilemma. On one hand, we are really unhappy with the human rights situation in China, and at this particular moment the human rights situation in Xinjiang. On the other hand we would really like to see the Olympic events go forward without any problems so the athletes can have good competition and demonstrate their years of training.” 

While the Olympic games have come to a close, concern about China’s human rights violations should not.

If learning about topics like this interests you, the Political Science department offers major tracks in Global Development and International Strategy and Diplomacy, and the Kennedy Center offers a major in International Relations.