'Pathetic and disgraceful': U.S. lawmakers blast Coca-Cola, Visa and others over Beijing Olympics
Published Tuesday, July 27, 2021 5:43PM EDT
A journalist wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus looks at an exhibit at a visitors center at the Winter Olympic venues in Yanqing on the outskirts of Beijing, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan Congressional panel blasted U.S.-based corporate sponsors of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Tuesday, including Coca-Cola, Visa Inc. and Airbnb, accusing them of putting profits ahead of accusations of genocide in China.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith told the Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing that the sponsors needed to reconcile their "ostensible commitment to human rights" with subsidizing an Olympics where the host country is "actively committing human rights abuses."
Smith asked each of the executives at the hearing - from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa Inc and Procter & Gamble - whether the games should be relocated or postponed due to concerns over human rights violations. All of them declined to opine, or said they had no responsibility over site selection.
"We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete," Coca-Cola's global vice president for human rights Paul Lalli said.
When asked about the U.S. government determination that China was committing a genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslims minority groups, only Steve Rodgers, executive vice president and general counsel for Intel, said he believed it.
"I've read the State Department report. I've studied it, and I believe its conclusions," Rodgers said, drawing praise from Republican Senator Tom Cotton for his "straight answer."
Other executives said they respected the U.S. government's conclusions, but would not weigh in on the matter.
The executives represent the five U.S. companies that have sponsorship commitments running through the Beijing Games under the official Olympic Partner (TOP) Program.
Rights groups, researchers, former residents and some Western lawmakers and officials say Chinese authorities have facilitated forced labour by detaining around a million Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in camps since 2016.
President Joe Biden's administration agreed with a determination by the former Trump administration that the detention camps and other abuses amounted to genocide.
China denies wrongdoing, saying it has set up vocational training centers to combat extremism. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
"Obviously, every one of you, with the exception on occasion of Mr. Rodgers, was sent here with orders not to say anything that could offend the Chinese Communist Party," Cotton said, calling testimony at the hearing "pathetic and disgraceful."
Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski rebuked Airbnb's head of Olympics and Paralympics partnership David Holyoke for not being more outspoken about criticism toward the Chinese government that it has prevented Uyghurs and Tibetans from obtaining passports and identification cards that would allow them to travel freely and register at hotels.
"In China we are required to follow local laws and regulations," Holyoke said, adding that "human rights are core to our values."
"You're just completely absolving yourself of responsibility for being complicit in abject discrimination," Malinowski said.
Asked repeatedly by Malinowski if Coca-Cola would specifically condemn any Chinese government abuses against Uyghurs, Lalli said without mentioning China: "We respect all human rights."
Malinowski noted that Coca-Cola was willing to wade into U.S. politics and condemn voting rights restrictions in its home state of Georgia, but would not criticize China's government.
"You are afraid of them in a way that you are not afraid of critics in the United States. I think that's shameful," Malinowski told Lalli, adding that it was "absolutely clear" that the company refused to criticize Beijing for fear it would harm its profits in China.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; editing by Richard Pullin)