For a couple of weeks, everyone in Beijing was able to pretend that the Olympics are just about the sport. Forget human rights. Forget the threat of China invading Taiwan. Don’t even think about getting political or making any kind of statement.
But a senior foreign ministry officer who serves as the official Beijing 2022 spokeswoman, Yan Jiarong, blew that out of the water Thursday, losing her shit big time at the organizers’ final scheduled press conference of the Games.
Among her statements: that claims of forced labor camps in Xinjiang province were “lies”; and that even though Taiwan would feature in Sunday’s closing ceremony, there could only ever be “one China.”
In between, for good measure, Yan made clear that it was the reporters asking the questions, rather than she herself, who were improperly “politicizing the Games.”
More than a dozen Western nations have joined a U.S-led “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Games because of abuses in Xinjiang, where human rights groups say more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities are detained in brutal labor camps. The U.S State Department characterizes the campaign of repression as a “genocide.”
The Chinese held up a metaphorical middle finger to those criticisms when they chose a young cross-country skier of Uyghur origin to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium—but since then both the IOC and Beijing organizers have managed to keep political questions off the agenda.
The gloves came off on Thursday, though, at a joint press conference of the IOC and Beijing organizing committee, the last such event planned in Beijing.
After an official claim earlier in the day that there had been not a single positive test on Wednesday among nearly 70,000 people tested daily in the Beijing Olympic “loop”—allowing organizers to claim victory over the Omicron variant—there should have been a celebratory feel to the occasion.
But Yan had apparently not read the memo, repeatedly interrupting questions to IOC spokesman Mark Adams to make clear the Chinese position on big political questions.
Adams was asked about Taiwanese participation in the closing ceremony—after claims the IOC effectively bullied Taiwan into sending a delegation—Yan interrupted to make a “supplementary remark.”
“We take a solemn position,” she said. “There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an indivisible part of China, it is a well-recognized international principle. We are always against the idea of politicizing the Olympic Games.”
She intervened again when Adams was asked about the existence of “concentration camps” in Xinjiang and the use of forced labor—questions he tried to bat away as “not particularly relevant” to the briefing.
“I think these questions are very much based on lies,” she said. “Some authorities have already disputed this false information. There is a lot of solid evidence. You are very welcome to refer to all that evidence, and the facts.”
Yan interrupted again when Adams was questioned about reports—denied by the IOC spokesman—that IOC uniforms had been produced by Uyghur labor or from cotton grown in Xinjiang. “These are lies from relevant groups,” she said. “We are against the politicizing of sports. Thank you.”
Yan’s strident declarations might not have been out of place at a Beijing foreign ministry briefing, where foreign correspondents asking inconvenient questions are routinely harangued into submission—but not on a shared platform with the IOC at an Olympic Games.
And it certainly shocked journalists at the briefing, with the veteran British reporter Duncan Mackay describing Yan’s performance as “jaw-dropping” and suggesting that the Chinese official had breached Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which says: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”