Experts: Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Games Needs More Nations for Impact

Experts say that for the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics to be effective, more countries will need to participate. But that could be challenging given some countries’ economic ties to China or recognized prowess in winter sports.

Since the Biden administration’s announcement this week that it would not send an official U.S. delegation to the Beijing Olympics, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada have joined the diplomatic boycott. That means no officials or diplomats from these countries will attend, although their athletes are still scheduled to compete in the February 4-20 Games.

All four countries said the boycott was in response to human rights violations by the Chinese government. During Monday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. boycott was a statement against China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a news conference on Wednesday that his government had raised its concerns with Beijing regarding “human rights abuses and issues in Xinjiang.”

And as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the decision, he expressed “extreme concern by the repeated human rights violations by the Chinese government.”

New Zealand reiterated this week that it would not send any government ministers to the Beijing Games, citing “a range of factors but mostly to do with COVID.”

Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, told VOA Mandarin via email Wednesday that the leaders’ statements indicate how seriously these countries take allegations of China’s human rights abuses and how willing they are to face criticism and retaliation from Beijing.

China has faced widespread international criticism for its treatment of the Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities as well as its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Boycott scenarios

If the boycott fails to draw widespread support, “it will be easier for the Chinese government to focus on a few countries who are ‘attacking’ it. But if it is a broader range of countries, then I think it would be harder for China to make it seem like a U.S.-led conspiracy against it,” Ku wrote.

Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with expertise in Chinese sports and the Olympic Games, told VOA Mandarin on Wednesday that “this is a really critical period right now. If a large number of countries jump on board immediately, it really will have much more impact. If it’s only what the Chinese sometimes call the ‘Anglo-Saxon clique,’ if the vast majority of the nearly 100 countries participating don’t follow at all or take a long time to follow, then that will have less impact.”

At a daily briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to the boycott, warning the U.S. “to stop politicizing sports, and stop disrupting and undermining the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

When asked about any countermeasures China might take, Zhao said “the U.S. would pay a price for its erroneous actions,” without providing details.

Brownell said the European Union’s position on the boycott was particularly important because the Winter Games are “entirely dominated by European countries.”

France, host of the next Summer Games, and Italy said they would not join the boycott. Germany and the Netherlands said they were seeking a “common EU stance.”

Norway, a winter Olympics powerhouse, said it would not participate in the diplomatic boycott.

Loss of trust

It’s unclear whether the EU will forge a common ground, Brownell said, because many Eastern European nations, such as Poland and Hungary, want to develop trade relationships with China and are not “huge supporters of human rights.”

“Another point is that many of our old allies felt a bit betrayed during the Trump era, and the U.S. lost their trust, and they’re not as likely to immediately follow the U.S. as they would have been before that,” she added.

The Beijing Games face challenges beyond the boycott. A November 29 article in the Chinese state-run Global Times said that because of the pandemic, “it’s not practical to invite too many foreign guests to China.”

The Global Times also reported it had “learned that as the host country, China has no plan to invite politicians who hype the ‘boycott’ of the Beijing Games.”

Meanwhile, some experts said that the International Olympic Committee should be blamed for the current controversy around the Beijing Olympics.

Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player who is now a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon, told VOA Mandarin via email that the IOC deserved “a huge amount of the blame for the situation. … After all, they decided to allocate the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing even though they knew full well that serious human rights abuses were happening in China. Rather than standing up for the principles enshrined in its own charter, the IOC chose to look the other way in order to keep the Olympics — the IOC’s golden money spigot — on track.”

On Tuesday, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the IOC’s coordination commission chief for the Beijing Winter Olympics, said, “We always ask for as much respect as possible and least possible interference from the political world. … We have to be reciprocal. We respect the political decisions taken by political bodies.”

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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