The past year has brought remarkable changes in the way we live our everyday lives. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most governments have placed restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus, forcing billions of people to spend more time online, and less time outside. The pandemic has accelerated many trends in technology and entertainment while upending the way we work, play, and relax. It has also had a huge impact on the way we protest and act politically.
As we step into 2021, HRF takes a look back at some of the underlying themes behind the struggle for freedom this year. Many authoritarian governments have seized on the pandemic to tighten restrictions on basic freedoms, going far beyond the recommendations of public health professionals, while activists and protesters have had to adapt to new and challenging conditions, using technology and innovation. The sports and entertainment industries which are often exploited by tyrants to expand their power have come underneath greater scrutiny over the past year, and the role of women in protest movements continues to expand.
It is not uncommon for entertainment companies, athletes, and celebrities to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Dictatorships tempt celebrities with lucrative contracts because of a phenomenon known as “whitewashing,” wherein countries ruled by authoritarian regimes can improve their public images by hosting lavish conferences, concerts or sporting events and acquiring sports clubs. This year, Saudi Arabia hosted the G20 summit of global leaders, and encouraged sporting franchises like the Ladies European Tour and the Formula 1 Grand Prix to host events in the Kingdom, despite the fact that several human rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi, who campaigned for women’s rights, remain in prison.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even North Korea also pay influencers to post pretty pictures of the “real country,” omitting any discussion of human rights and oppression. Whitewashing is dangerous because it allows an authoritarian regime to present itself as modern and progressive in order to attract business opportunities that benefit the regime, while ordinary people remain repressed and robbed of basic freedoms.
China is the world’s largest market for entertainment, and unfortunately, many companies are choosing profits over morality and ignoring the systematic human rights abuses in the country. After the filming of Mulan in Xinjiang, Disney thanked the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security, a police bureau that is involved in running Xinjiang’s genocidal Uyghur re-education camps. In addition, Liu Yifei, the lead actress of Mulan, publicly supported police brutality in Hong Kong when the government cracked down on protesters. Disney is one of the world’s most recognizable companies, and has done valuable work in the United States bringing attention to racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, with regard to the Uyghurs in China, Disney remained silent, choosing to maintain its good relationship with the CCP instead of standing up for human rights.
Whitewashing doesn’t need to be done by celebrities or athletes. Cuba’s Medical Brigades, which this year were praised by Virgin founder Richard Branson and the mayor of Turin for helping fight COVID-19, are used by the Cuban dictatorship to generate revenue and as a form of propaganda to support the Castro regime. Cuban doctors and nurses are lured to work in medical missions abroad with the promise of higher wages and better living conditions, but these programs are far from providing either. Host countries pay the Cuban government for these professional services, but it keeps up to 90% of the workers’ compensation and severely limits their basic rights by constantly monitoring them, forbidding them from interacting with locals, and threatening their families back in Cuba should they break any of these draconian rules. While the healthcare workers themselves do provide a valuable service and deserve every bit of recognition, the program run by the Cuban state closely resembles a human trafficking scheme. The missions are not only mired by allegations of mistreatment, but anyone leaving a mission before their stipulated time is branded a “deserter” and banned from returning to their country for many years.
However, fans and audiences are also putting more pressure on celebrities and athletes to respect fundamental rights. Saudi Arabia’s bid to purchase Premier League football club Newcastle United was met with pressure from fans, forcing the club to acknowledge the brutality of the Saudi regime. American rappers Tyga and SAINt Jhn pulled out of a concert organized by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko after HRF sent them a letter outlining the brutality of the Belarusian regime, and Swedish singer Zara Larsson ended her collaboration with Huawei over the communications company’s role in the genocide against the Uyghurs.
With the 2022 Beijing Olympics approaching, conversations about celebrity support for dictatorships will become more and more important as fans recognize how authoritarian regimes use popular figures to whitewash their crimes.
Moving into 2021, we must continue to support those that are fighting for freedom and democracy. You can help by making a contribution to the Human Rights Foundation today.