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Olympics sponsors caught between U.S. and China

Companies that do business in China — especially Olympics sponsors — are concerned Beijing will use the 2022 Winter Games as a loyalty test.

Why it matters: China's leaders have become adept at silencing criticism from U.S. companies that might otherwise condemn the country's human rights record — and the Chinese government has been able to host prestigious global events like the Olympics while committing rights violations with impunity.

  • "There is a desire on China’s part to showcase its strength more than anything else, as opposed to just showcasing winter sport," said Steven Fox, executive chairman and founder of Veracity Worldwide, a business intelligence and strategic advisory firm.
  • "This is about China being on the world stage, even more than was the case in 2008."

What's happening: There are 13 top-level Olympics corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb and Intel, which together are projected to have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

  • Journalists, rights groups and politicians have pressed the companies to speak out against China's human rights violations, especially the government's campaign of mass internment and forced labor targeting ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
  • None of the companies have done so.

State of play: With customer bases in both the U.S. and China, U.S. companies are facing radically divergent demands in the months leading up to the Olympics.

  • "The customer base outside China may expect companies to make a statement or take action — whereas any such action could in turn lead to boycotts by Chinese customers in China," Fox told Axios.
  • Corporate executives understand Beijing is unlikely to tolerate anything but full-throated enthusiasm for the Games.

The bottom line: "Companies will want to be as neutral as possible and say, 'It’s not our place to play politics,'" Fox said.

Go deeper: China's business crackdown isn't scaring away big investors

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