A boycott of the Beijing Olympics would be preposterous. Ask the brands that manufacture there

By Bart Taylor | Apr 04, 2021

In American politics, China is the equal-opportunity villain. All sides have found reasons to pick a fight, including the media, where voices are drumming up support for a boycott of China's 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

But an Olympic boycott is the worst of all options to protest China's behavior or effect lasting change.

For starters, history tells us they don't work. What was gained from the Carter administration's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics? Certainly not a USSR withdrawal from Afghanistan. Wider economic embargoes are typically no better. What of the 60-plus year Cuban embargo? If the intention was to sustain the Castro regime for half a century, mission accomplished.

Yet even a symbolic boycott of the Beijing games would ignore our current codependency with China and make for an embarrassing spectacle. Last week's galling Washington Post op-ed, "Companies must boycott the Beijing Olympics," aptly demonstrates why.

The Post lectures long-running Olympic sponsors like Visa, Coca-Cola, and General Electric that "[t]heir endorsement of the Games is effectively an endorsement of China as a global leader, entitled to a worldwide celebration of its achievements and worth."

What, then, of the myriad American brands whose products are made in China, brands that will festoon U.S. Olympians as they parade in opening ceremonies, compete in the Games, or socialize in Beijing? Are they to boycott the games as well? What message would this send to the Chinese factory workers who manufacture their gear? (Here's the latest on how Ralph Lauren is trying to thread the needle with the "official" U.S. uniforms to be worn in opening and closing ceremonies for the Tokyo games. U.S. outdoor industry brands must be rolling their eyes.)

The degree to which U.S. companies rely on Chinese labor is staggering. Denver's VF Corp. -- parent company to stellar consumer brands like The North Face, Timberland, Vans, and many more -- owns or operates over 400 factories in China alone. They're in good company. U.S. firms operating offshore "effectively endorse" China as a global manufacturing leader every day.

The codependency runs deep. U.S. brands rely on Chinese employees to fulfill the brand promises they make to customers here and around the world. Kühl, Utah's successful OI brand, proudly proclaims its products are "Born in the Mountains" -- the Wasatch Mountains, one suspects. They're also made in China.

But to single out Kühl or any of hundreds of U.S. brands, is no more appropriate than berating Visa or GE. When U.S. brands have more options to invest in domestic labor and factories, but don't, The Washington Post will have front page news. Better than today when its columnists parrot the op-ed board to implore companies to ask, "[is] it really consistent with our values to sponsor the Genocide ­Olympics?" even as Chinese labor helps U.S. companies bring American "values" to life every day in the products they make.

An informed approach by U.S. policymakers would encourage American athletes to travel to China and win, as they work overtime to help U.S. companies reshore jobs and fulfill the brand promises they make every day.

No, an Olympic boycott will do nothing to deter China from subjugating its Uyghur population. To effect lasting change, to regain leverage, America must reestablish the domestic supply chains that enable its companies to manufacture more products on American soil. As we've written before, a reinvigorated U.S. manufacturing base is the one development certain to capture Beijing's attention.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.