The activists’ request was straightforward: They wanted to share their concerns about human rights in China, in particular the possibility that official merchandise for the Beijing Olympics was being made with forced labor, and to hear what the International Olympic Committee was doing to ensure it was not.
For months, they pressed Olympics officials for a conversation. At first, the I.O.C. demurred. Eventually, officials from the committee agreed to meet — but only for an “active listening exercise,” not to share any information. And the talk would have to remain secret.
Finally, late last month, the I.O.C. pulled out entirely from meeting with the activist group, the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region.
“While the I.O.C. will continue strengthening its work in relation to labor rights,” said the email from Magali Martowicz, the I.O.C.’s head of human rights, “we regret to conclude that your organization and the I.O.C. will not be able to engage in a dialogue this time as a result of differences in approach, including regarding scope, process and confidentiality.”
Concerns about China’s human rights record loom over the country’s preparations to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month. World leaders and activists have focused on the authorities’ suppression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority, in the western Xinjiang region, and allegations that Uyghurs are being pressed into forced labor. The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia have announced diplomatic boycotts.
The I.O.C. has consistently deflected calls to exert more pressure on China — a lucrative market and an important financial and organizational partner for the Olympics — for its potential abuses. When Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian, disappeared from public life after accusing a top Chinese leader of coercing her into sex, the I.O.C. held a video call with her and said she appeared to be safe, despite widespread global concern. When challenged on China’s suppression of civil liberties in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, officials have argued that the Games are not political.
But the correspondence between the I.O.C. and the anti-forced labor coalition, which was reviewed by The New York Times, shows how reluctant the committee is to engage Beijing’s critics even on issues directly related to the operation of the Games.
Companies may be unable to guarantee that their products are not made with forced labor, especially given China’s restrictions on outsiders in Xinjiang. But the I.O.C. appears reluctant even to try, members of the coalition said —echoing the concerns of other human rights groups.
“They either had nothing to say or show on due diligence on forced labor, or they were unwilling because they won’t cross swords with Beijing,” said Bennett Freeman, a former State Department official who sent the emails to the I.O.C. on the coalition’s behalf.
As a result, he said, “it is really impossible at this point for the I.O.C. to rule out Uyghur forced labor content in Olympic-branded merchandise.”
The I.O.C. has met with other human rights activists about the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdowns in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. But those activists later accused the I.O.C. of dismissing their concerns. The I.O.C. also met with Human Rights Watch in January but rebuffed the group’s requests for information about its due diligence procedures, said Minky Worden, the group’s director of global initiatives.
The I.O.C. has proved more willing to engage with human rights concerns elsewhere, Ms. Worden said. In 2014, the I.O.C., under pressure from activists, prodded the Russian government to investigate claims of unpaid wages to workers who had helped build Winter Games venues in Sochi. Last year, the committee raised concerns with Japanese officials about conditions for construction workers ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
But, Ms. Worden said, “there’s a different system for China.”
The I.O.C. has defended its approach to human rights concerns in China, arguing that sports are a tool to building a better world. In an emailed response to questions, it said it was willing to engage with critics, and it defended its sourcing practices, noting that it engages with suppliers and at times conducts audits.
It said the organizing committee in Beijing, which is led by Chinese government officials, would release a report addressing responsible sourcing in mid-January.
“It is our policy that the I.O.C. hears all concerns that are directly related to the Olympic Games,” the statement said. But “while generic concerns have been expressed in the past about Beijing 2022’s product sourcing, the I.O.C. has not been approached about any specific case or situation, including by the Coalition.”
As for the failed meeting attempt, the I.O.C. said it had offered the activists terms for “a constructive engagement” and been declined.
The Chinese government has denied any accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang, and companies that criticize Beijing’s human rights record have suffered fierce backlash from nationalistic Chinese consumers. Intel, the chip maker, apologized to Chinese customers last month after its announcement that it would avoid products and labor from Xinjiang provoked fury on Chinese social media.
Concerns about Uyghur forced labor largely revolve around the clothing industry, as Xinjiang supplies one-fifth of the world’s cotton or yarn. Investigations by The Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others have found evidence linking China’s forced detention of Uyghurs — which has ensnared as many as one million people in internment camps and coercive labor programs — to the supply chains of leading fashion retailers.
The I.O.C. also has ties to companies that use Xinjiang cotton. The committee’s official sportswear uniform supplier is Anta, a Chinese sportswear giant that has affirmed its commitment to Xinjiang cotton. In its emailed statement, the I.O.C. said it had recently carried out third-party audits for the uniforms to be provided by Anta and found “no issue” with forced labor.
Pressure on companies to disentangle themselves from such potential abuses is growing. Last month, President Joseph R. Biden signed a bipartisan bill to ban the import of goods made “in whole or in part” in Xinjiang, unless companies could prove that they were not made with forced labor.
Informal efforts to arrange a conversation between the I.O.C. and the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region — a group of more than 300 organizations established last year — began in May, according to Mr. Freeman. Finally, in the fall, the I.O.C. invited the coalition to send a formal request to meet, which it did, on Oct. 8.
Officials at first offered a written response instead. In an email on Oct. 29, Ms. Martowicz, the head of human rights, replied to Mr. Freeman to say that the I.O.C.’s sourcing policies banned forced labor. But she did not say how the I.O.C. enforced that ban, other than “from time to time” “engaging with our suppliers” — in other words, the companies themselves — “to request evidence of compliance.”
Third-party checks, she added, were something the I.O.C. “will be looking at” in “coming months.”
Critics say the I.O.C. has been slow to adopt a human rights framework, compared with corporations or even other global sports organizations, such as FIFA. The I.O.C. has adopted new requirements for host cities to uphold international standards on human rights, but those do not take effect until 2024.
Three days after Ms. Martowicz’s email, the coalition asked again for a conversation. Finally, on Dec. 9, Ms. Martowicz said the I.O.C. would meet — with conditions.
The talk would be a one-time event. It would be kept confidential before, during and after, the emails showed. And the I.O.C. would listen only.
“For the sake of clarity, during the Exercise the I.O.C. will not be sharing information (other than what has already been shared) with the Coalition,” Ms. Martowicz wrote.
Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur rights group that is part of the coalition, said she found that condition laughable.
“It just tells you that they don’t want to commit to changing things,” she said.
On Dec. 14, Mr. Freeman reiterated the call for a two-way conversation and asked to be allowed to talk publicly about the meeting after it happened. A week later, the I.O.C. cut off discussions.
Ms. Arkin said she had been skeptical all along about the I.O.C.’s willingness to meet with the coalition. She had participated in the previous, separate meetings between the I.O.C. and Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong activists, which did not have confidentiality requirements, she said. Afterward, the activists had used those talks to further publicly criticize China.
“There’s part of me that thinks,” she said of the I.O.C., “they don’t want to offend Beijing anymore.”