The Problem

China is hosting the 2022 Olympics. Many worry that such a high profile event broadcast worldwide provides this authoritarian regime a stage to propagandize their systems and sweep under the carpet its many human rights abuses. Others argue that such an authoritarian regime should not have the privilege of hosting a prestigious event such as the Olympics. Among the human rights abuses people cite are the horrible oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which many, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are calling genocide. Other dubious practices include detention and arrest of human rights activists and lawyers, the suppression of a burgeoning feminist movement, the crackdown on freedom of expression in Hong Kong, the censoring of the Internet, and the targeting of other minority groups from Tibet to Inner Mongolia. The full transgressions of China’s government could fill up volumes.

Boycotts Will be Difficult to Do

Boycotts often have difficulty in gaining traction. This is especially true with China which is intricately and expansively enmeshed into the world economy. China accounts for 14 percent of world exports. It is the world’s third-largest importer. China is the top trade partner with far more countries than the United States is. For many large international companies, from German automakers to airplane manufacturers to cell phone companies, China is a crucially large market.

In addition, many politicians and policymakers believe boycotts “politicize” athletes. Many others will argue athletes are politicized by participating in a competition in the country of such an authoritarian regime,  it will be very difficult to convince countries to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. Indeed, even the Biden administration, which has been quite vocal about China’s human rights abuses, is not calling for a boycott.

Something That May Work: Advertising During the Olympics

But perhaps there is a more creative, potentially more effective strategy than boycotts. A premise of boycotts, as we note above, is that they are necessary because China wants to use the platform of the Olympics to propagate its messages out to the world. But, what if those of us who care about human rights use the Olympics stage to communicate concern about China’s human rights abuses? We can do this by buying advertising time and airing ads that talk about China’s human rights abuses. One ad could focus on the oppression of the Uyghurs. Another on China’s censorship of the Internet, another on their crackdown on Hong Kong, and so on and so forth.

During the last Winter Olympics, ad time cost $100,000 per ad. Let’s assume it will cost $150,000 this Olympics. So to buy 20 ads on NBC it would cost $3 million, plus the costs to produce the ads. For the networks that carry the Olympics in other countries, such as CBC in Canada or ZDF in Germany, the rate will presumably be less than $150,000.

Perhaps some of the production work could be obtained pro bono because of the cause, or perhaps not. But we likely need to raise less than $10 million to show a number of ads that will have real impact.

They Won’t be Shown in China, Obviously

Now we have to remember that these ads that we produce, that we pay for to be shown on various televisions networks, will never be shown in China. China’s networks obviously won’t show them and the Great Firewall will prevent them from sneaking through the Internet. But the ads will reach hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, informing them of the real nature of China’s government. This will negate much of the benefit China receives by hosting the Olympics. People are rightly worried that China will be able to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes and that their human rights abuses will be ignored. An advertisement campaign will significantly mitigate those possibilities.

What if the Various TV Networks Refuse to Air the Ads?

This is a very real possibility. As we have seen in recent years—from Hollywood, to H&M to certain players in the NBA, China’s economic might provides enormous leverage over companies and individuals with much to lose when they offend China, or even annoy them just a little bit. And China’s government, like oppressors and authoritarians everywhere and at every time, are easily offended and annoyed. They are the true snowflakes of our world. But if the networks do refuse to sell the ads, that will become a story in itself. And, the ads can be displayed on social media (though, of course, not on China’s social media platforms such as WeChat since they are heavily censored). The notoriety of China’s actions and television networks refusal to show the ads may help them go viral online and perhaps lead to even more people seeing the ads than if they were shown on the ancient communications medium, network television.

Who Can Organize This?

I have no illusions that I have the power, reach and connections to do this myself, to raise the money, write the scripts, produce the ads and buy the airtime. But organizations such as Human Rights Watch and/or Amnesty International do. They can conduct a one-time fundraising campaign for this project. Rather than a single organization managing this initiative, maybe a few organizations could come together to do so. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and other like-minded organizations could form an alliance to manage this important initiative.  Maybe they could join forces with organizations who have called for boycotting the China Winter Olympics such as the World Uyghur Congress, Students for a Free Tibet and We the Hong Kongers.

It is indeed problematic that an authoritarian regime like the one that rules China, which is committing what many consider genocide, is hosting the Olympic Games. But boycotts are unlikely to work. Creating ads and buying airtime, or at least attempting to buy airtime, on the TV networks covering the Olympics might be an even more effective strategy.