Folded into legislation the Senate passed this week aimed at competing economically with China is a mandate for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics in light of ongoing human rights abuses, including the Uyghur genocide.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., pushed the amendment in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s continued atrocities against people in Hong Kong and the Uyghur population, a Muslim ethnic group in China’s westernmost province.

The Chinese Communist Party’s censorship, repression of religion and minorities and surveillance of its citizens is well known, Romney said during a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday.

“But when it comes to its genocide of the Uyghur people, China has largely been able to hide what it is perpetrating from the world at large,” he said.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney speaks about the human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in China in this screenshot of a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday, June 10, 2021. | U.S. Senate

Kaine said he and Romney are of the opinion that the Olympics in China would create an opportunity to focus attention on the atrocities against the Uyghur people.

Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent the country, Romney wrote in a New York Times op-ed in March.

Romney, who headed the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, has also called for an economic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which was not included in the bill. An economic and diplomatic boycott should be done in collaboration with NBC, he wrote. NBC owns the broadcast rights to the 2022 Games.

In the hearing, Romney said there is concern about sponsorships and encouraging companies not to sponsor the Olympics. But companies must buy sponsorships for multiple Games, he said, so they can’t pick and choose a particular country.

“That’s to prevent them from doing what we’d like them to do here, which is boycotting China’s Games,” he said.

Still, Romney wanted to know during the hearing about efforts to prevent China from hiding what is happening to the Uyghurs, whom he said are the victims of the “most heinous human rights abuses on the planet today.”

“I think there are a lot of things that the U.S. can and should do. I think these Olympics are going to be a consular challenge of enormous proportion,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s worth pointing out that we did write to all of the top sponsors and to NBC asking what their human rights due diligence strategies were around these Games, and none of them has replied.”

Replied Kaine, “That last answer suggests that we might want to write them, and they better reply.”

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, speaks at a Senate hearing on human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in China on Thursday, June 10, 2021. | U.S. Senate

Congress should have U.S.-based companies and NBC explain how they’re making sure that their engagement in the Olympics doesn’t lead to human rights violations, Richardson said.

Richardson said she disagreed with Romney’s suggestion in the Times op-ed that America and other countries have a “heart-to-heart” with the International Olympic Committee about awarding the Olympics to repressive regimes.

“I think that would require finding that the IOC has a heart,” she said. “I have interacted with few institutions that had the power to make positive change and flatly refused to do so.”

One of the biggest problems with the IOC relates to what could happen in China with athletes using their voices to express concerns about being made to compete in places where they disagree with what the government is doing.

“I think the IOC has not taken that on board,” she said.

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Richardson said U.S. athletes in China should expect to have private social media posts about Uyghurs, even if it’s asking questions or simply having a conversation with family members, to be surveilled “without question.”

“And they could be arrested for doing so under Chinese law,” Romney said.

The Associated Press reported that an estimated 1 million people or more — most of them Uyghurs — have been confined in reeducation camps in China’s western Xinjiang region in recent years, according to researchers. Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control, torture and separating children from incarcerated parents.

Beijing rejects allegations that it is committing crimes.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said China targeted the Uyghurs because it realized at some point that it had lost control of one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, numbering nearly 12 million people.

“This initiative is a long-term experiment to, for good, really deal, break and assimilate, and to some extent destroy the group’s identity as a group,” he said in the hearing. “The Uyghurs are concentrated. There’s many of them. They have shown great resilience to assimilation.”

Richardson said the largest Uyghur communities outside China are in the U.S., Germany, Australia and Turkey.

But some countries, particularly in central Asia and the Middle East, are cooperating with China to deport Uyghurs. Richardson said many of them are not political activists or government critics, but ordinary people.

“We can only conclude that the Chinese government’s goal is to try to forcibly return all Uyhgurs and other Turkic Muslims to the country so that they’re unable to share their stories with people outside. I think that’s a very frightening impulse. The fact that so many governments have complied with it and assisted it is very worrying,” she said.

Romney said the Uyghur genocide “reminds us of a period in the history of the world which is abhorrent, and it is going on and most of the nations of the world have normal relations with the country doing this.”

The senator also asked Zenz who the Chinese government might target next.

Zenz said any group who’s not aligned with or is acting against the government in an organized way could be next, including instituted religion and other Muslims.

“Who’s to say who’s next in line in what I believe is a growing paranoia within the regime,” he said.