Olympic sponsor Airbnb benefits from announcements in Xinjiang and Tibet

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Beijing (AFP) – Olympic sponsor Airbnb has hundreds of listings in Xinjiang and Tibet, two regions where China has been accused of widespread human rights abuses and forced cultural assimilation, a new study reveals.

Beijing is hosting the Winter Games as the international community grows alarm over rights violations against minority groups, particularly its predominantly Muslim Uyghur population.

Airbnb is one of the biggest backers of the Olympics with a $500 million sponsorship deal through 2028.

The online platform’s steady growth in China is partly driven by around 700 accommodation listings in the troubled far west, according to data compiled by the London-based nonprofit Free Tibet which was exclusively obtained and verified by AFP.

They include around 380 lists in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where Beijing is believed to have imprisoned around a million Uyghurs as part of a crackdown on religious extremism.

Another 300 are in neighboring Tibet, where activists have long accused the government of religious repression and cultural erasure.

Nasdaq-listed Airbnb connects travelers with hosts looking to rent accommodation and earns money by charging a service fee.

The San Francisco-based firm has vocally embraced progressive political issues like the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement in the United States.

In a statement to AFP, Airbnb said it operates “where permitted by the US government” and “has a “rigorous process…to help us ensure we are following applicable rules.”

China promotes western Xinjiang region as skiing, winter sports destination STR CNS/AFP/Dossier

The company said it had a “long-term partnership” spanning multiple Olympics and had spoken to the International Olympic Committee about “the importance of human rights”.

He said China was “an important part of our goal to connect people around the world”, but only accounted for around 1% of his revenue in recent years.

-‘Mysterious and romantic’-

China has made Xinjiang a vibrant tourist destination and, more recently, a winter sports hub.

But the region has been plagued by a years-long “anti-terror” campaign that has dragged large numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslims into a sprawling network of “re-education” camps.

Beijing also stands accused of forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women, imposing forced labor and destroying cultural sites in what the United States and lawmakers in several Western countries have described as genocide.

Airbnb is one of the biggest backers of the Olympics with a $500 million sponsorship deal through 2028
Airbnb is one of the biggest backers of the Olympics with a $500 million sponsorship deal through 2028 Lionel BONAVENTURE AFP/File

China vehemently denies these allegations.

After initially rejecting the existence of camps, Beijing has declared the facilities to be voluntary vocational training centers to stamp out extremism.

On Airbnb’s Chinese site, hosts in Xinjiang cheat on “ethnic-style” rooms with “mysterious and romantic” decor.

“More and more” tourists were flocking to the “magnificent” area, said a landlady surnamed Yu in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.

“There is absolutely no reason to worry about public safety issues,” she told AFP, describing herself as part of China’s ethnic Han majority.

Another Kashgar-based host who declined to be named brushed off a question about ethnic discrimination, saying Western countries had “distorted the facts”.

-‘Dead city’-

According to experts and Uighurs outside China, Xinjiang’s tourism boom hides a darker reality.

Former residents described longstanding restrictions on religious and cultural expression, while many historic buildings in Kashgar have been demolished to make way for new tourist developments.

A US-based Kashgar native said tourists only arrived in droves after waves of arrests from 2017 cleared many neighborhoods of Uyghur residents.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said among those detained was his brother, whom he has not heard from since.

Remaining Uighurs are driven to “interpret” state-sanctioned cultural differences in food, dance or music, said Darren Byler, assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

But other practices are strictly controlled and tourists may not be aware that they are “in a kind of ghost town, where the people who really lived on this street are missing”, he told the AFP.

-‘Genocidal processes’-

Airbnb has rebounded from the global tourism crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with revenue last year 25% higher than in 2019.

The company operates in 220 countries and regions, and is increasingly popular in China where its name translates to “welcome with love”.

Its Chinese operations have already come under scrutiny, with reports revealing that some listings discriminated against Uyghurs and Tibetans while others were located on land owned by a US-sanctioned paramilitary group.

Western companies, including fashion giant H&M, have already faced consumer boycotts in China for pulling out of Xinjiang.

David Tobin, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Britain’s University of Sheffield, said companies profiting from tourism in areas cleared of Uyghur populations are “complicit in genocidal processes”.

Norway-based Uyghur language activist Abduweli Ayup said companies like Airbnb could list homes that were once owned by Uyghurs.

“(They) have a responsibility to check where the owners are and why so many houses are empty,” he said.

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