As Beijing Olympics approach, Coke must tackle human rights abuses in China

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Next month, China will host the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the most misguided venue for the games since Adolf Hitler brought the 1936 Olympics to Berlin. Even as China has emerged as one of the world’s largest economies, President Xi Jinping’s government has stepped up its crackdown on dissent and free speech in Hong Kong and its mass detention of more than one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. Xi has defied international calls for reform and made it clear his intention to punish those who stand in his way, both at home and abroad. Widespread human rights violations by the government and its categorical refusal to engage on these issues pose formidable challenges for foreign governments, Olympic athletes and commercial sponsors of the games, like Coca-Cola.

In December, President Biden sent an important message when he announced that no senior U.S. government official would attend the games in response to China’s gross human rights violations. The leaders of Canada, Japan, Australia and other countries have announced similar diplomatic boycotts.

It is unreasonable to ask Olympic athletes to withdraw from the Olympics. While some activists have called for a total boycott, I share the prevailing view that athletes who have trained for years to compete at the Olympic level should be encouraged to do so. Most athletes won’t want to publicly comment on China’s poor human rights record, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a special responsibility to protect those who do so from government retaliation.

The IOC failed to do so for Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai after issuing a statement online in November, accusing a former senior government official of sexually assaulting her. Shortly after its publication, Peng’s online account was deleted by the government and she disappeared from public view. Rather than protest or seriously investigate her situation, the IOC apparently worked with Chinese officials to arrange an interview with her, bending over backwards to protect the government. The IOC’s reluctance to engage meaningfully on human rights issues was highlighted recently when it refused to hold private talks with a coalition of organizations supporting Uyghurs. Although it has shown a lack of strength in the past, the IOC must now be prepared to defend Olympic athletes against retaliation from the Chinese government if they speak out against human rights.

While they did not choose Beijing as their Olympic venue, commercial sponsors like Coke, Intel and Proctor & Gamble are also in the spotlight. Because they have multi-year sponsorship deals with the IOC, it is unreasonable to expect them to break those contracts for the Beijing games. While it is hoped that in the coming weeks the corporate sponsors will speak out about the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government, at the very least, they have an obligation to conduct their own business in China in a manner. responsible.

Coca-Cola is failing to meet this obligation with respect to a bottling plant in Xinjiang, which is a joint venture between Coke and a Chinese state-owned company called COFCO. The Atlanta-based company fails because it is unable to independently monitor this facility or the sugar production associated with Xinjiang. I come to this conclusion reluctantly, having worked with senior Coke executives for a quarter of a century. I first became involved with the company in the 1990s, when it faced a crisis after the murder of a union leader at a local bottling plant producing coca products in Colombia. . The attacks on union leaders there became a catalyst for the company to put in place a strong internal human rights program, then led by Ed Potter, a labor expert who had worked with the International Labor Organization for two decades. I worked with Potter and saw his commitment to improving Coke practices firsthand when I served in the State Department during the first Obama administration. In 2012, in response to continued human rights violations in Myanmar, the US government promulgated a public disclosure requirement for companies doing business in Myanmar. While many companies resisted the reporting requirement, Coke publicly endorsed the exercise and encouraged other companies to participate. Coke also voluntarily extended the reporting standards to other high-risk countries where it operated.

In Xinjiang, COFCO Group, China’s largest state-owned food processing holding company, is the majority owner of the bottling joint venture with Coca Cola Co. A related entity, COFCO Tunhe Sugar, is a sugar supplier. from the Xinjiang factory. and another Coke bottling operation in Gansu. In July 2018, the state-run Xinjiang Economic Journal reported that COFCO Tunhe had visited a town near Aksu town to recruit villagers to their factory as part of the government’s reduction program. poverty.. This program was used to disguise involuntary recruitment and forced labor practices, and the report noted that many villagers eventually fled the factory. COFCO Tunhe has denied these allegations. In July 2020, four U.S. government departments issued a Xinjiang Supply Chain Notice warning U.S. companies that any involvement in government poverty reduction efforts or job training programs by companies operating in Xinjiang is an indicator of possible forced labor or abuse of workers. More generally, the most recent US State Department human rights report on China points to “evidence of forced labor imposed by the use of force, threats of detention or other abusive practices. against workers working in camps, large industrial parks and residential areas. in Xinjiang.

While Coke says in a written statement that it expects its bottlers “to adopt responsible work practices online With “the company’s human rights policies, it’s hard to see how Coke can apply these principles in any meaningful way in Xinjiang. For years, the Chinese government has systematically closed Xinjiang to journalists, foreign diplomats and academics. Independent labor monitoring organizations concluded that they could no longer perform credible audits in Xinjiang due to government interference. As one UN official commented last fall, “We have had no access to Xinjiang, significant or otherwise. ”

The Chinese government has refused international access to hide massive and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang. A recent report by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found that “in recent years, intrusive mass surveillance of the community by the Chinese government has intensified and networks of detention centers and prisons run by the government in Xinjiang has expanded considerably, resulting in mass incarceration. one to three million people, mostly Uyghurs. There is now a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes against humanity of forced sterilization, sexual violence, slavery, torture and forcible transfer are also committed.

Faced with such grim assessments, Coke finds it difficult to defend its joint bottling operation in Xinjiang. In July, Paul Lalli, who heads Coke’s human rights program, testified before Congress about the Beijing games and how the company is meeting its global commitment to human rights and uses independent third parties to assess working practices at its bottling sites. He claimed the company would end relationships with bottlers who were unable or unwilling to authorize such independent assessments.

Despite the Chinese government’s continued denial of access to all independent Xinjiang observers, Lalli testified, “I am convinced that the audits we have carried out on our operations around the world and including in this region [Xinjiang] have shown that there is no such thing as forced labor. In response to my recent inquiry on this point, Coke said that the Xinjiang Bottling Plant and COFCO Tunhe Sugar Farm had been subject to on-site audits in 2021, without any work cases. forced was found. or other human rights violations. Coke will not identify the company that performed the audits or any of the analyzes used to corroborate its conclusions. I have no doubt that Coke conducted some form of audit, but I do not think the oversight can be considered independent, that is, conducted without interference from government and by people who themselves are not. not vulnerable to official pressure.

With the Olympics set to begin in February, Coke has two options. It can stop producing drinks in Xinjiang or persuade the Chinese government to allow genuinely independent auditors to audit its facilities. The company’s current strategy of keeping our heads down and wishing the issue resolved is no longer viable and will seriously undermine the reputation of Coke’s iconic brand.

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