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A China World Cup Faces Human Rights Hurdles, Report Author Says

  • Study says human rights should be considered in World Cup bids
  • 2022 host Qatar has been criticized over worker deaths

China’s ambitions to host the World Cup face potential human rights challenges, according to the author of a report commissioned by soccer’s governing body FIFA.

QuickTake The World Cup

In response to criticism of poor conditions and deaths among migrant construction workers in Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup, FIFA commissioned an independent study of its policies on human rights. In a 42-page report, Harvard Kennedy School professor John Ruggie suggests FIFA make explicit human rights requirements for any country looking to host its tournaments.

The report doesn’t single out any nation and its recommendations are non-binding on FIFA. Still, “there would be some work to do on the part of China to comply with what I expect the bidding requirement will be,” Ruggie said in an interview, without giving specifics. “Are they willing to agree to certain conditions for the purpose of the tournament? It really is up to them."

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it a national priority to elevate the country’s soccer status and build sports into a 5-trillion-yuan ($771 billion) industry in the country by 2025. Dalian Wanda Group Co. became a top-level sponsor of FIFA earlier this year, and company founder Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, called for other companies to join him, saying more corporate support would "help China bid to host the World Cup."

‘Unprecedented’ Violations

China hosted the FIFA women’s World Cup in 2007 and the Summer Olympics in 2008, which brought international focus and headlines about its human rights record. Its next major event is the 2022 Winter Olympics. On the eve of the decision to award China hosting rights last year, several dissidents published an open letter claiming the country faced “a human rights crisis with a scale of violations that is unprecedented since 2008."

FIFA has “a responsibility in regard to human rights and in terms of how we go about developing the game of football and organizing our competitions,” its head of sustainability Federico Addiechi said in a release accompanying the report.

The body’s new president Gianni Infantino said in March he wants to resume the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup within three months, after it was suspended following a corruption crisis at the organization. While China is probably interested in hosting, the earliest it may be able to bid is for the 2030 matches -- after Qatar, FIFA’s regulations require a country outside Asia to host.

FIFA Sponsors

FIFA’s two oldest sponsors backed the recommendations in the report, with Coca-Cola Co. urging it to "act deliberately and decisively to implement" the measures. Adidas AG issued a similar call in a separate statement.

China hasn’t officially said it will bid for the 2030 rights. Li Qian, a media official with the Chinese Football Association, said on Thursday "we don’t have concrete information for you at this moment".

The U.S. State Department this week criticized China in a report, saying civil and political rights advocacy groups faced increased repression and coercion during the last year.

‘Positive Steps’

New York-based Human Rights Watch in a 2015 report acknowledged some "positive steps in certain areas" under Xi’s leadership, but said "China remains an authoritarian state, one that systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule."

China has issued at least a dozen papers to defend its record. It has reported progress in promoting development, especially a poverty-relief effort it says has lifted more than 525 million people out of poverty in 20 years.

Under Ruggie’s recommendations, Qatar’s bid would have been required to make guarantees regarding labor standards and its “kafala” system, which often leaves migrant workers in bonded labor. FIFA is now working with the Qatar government, and the UN’s International Labour Organization recently inspected conditions, saying more progress was needed.

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