Written by: Mira
Edited by: Martin
Visual by: Sarah
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics continues amid very unique circumstances, one being the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced organizers and athletes to remain in a closed-loop bubble characterized by extremely limited contact with places outside Olympic venues. However, the more glaring development is the fact that multiple countries have declared a diplomatic boycott against the Winter Olympics, citing concerns over China’s poor human rights record.
The United States was the first country to enact a diplomatic boycott, doing so in December 2021. The primary concerns surround the repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang—an ethnic minority group facing mass detention—and violent crackdowns of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. The boycott gained more support when Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared after making sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking politician. After these alarming controversies were brought to the international spotlight, several other countries including Canada, the UK, Belgium, and Australia followed suit in declaring diplomatic boycotts; athletes would still participate in the games, but these countries will not send any government officials including vice presidents, ambassadors, secretaries of state, and ministers. These diplomatic boycotts illustrate a considerable escalation in pressure for China to address its controversies and that many countries do not support China’s current use of its power.
This raises the question: will these diplomatic boycotts be effective? According to previous Olympic boycotts, the chances of efficacy seem unlikely. During Moscow’s 1980 Summer Olympics, multiple countries boycotted due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. These boycotts not only angered athletes, who had trained for years and were denied an opportunity to compete on the Olympic stage, but also contributed little effect as the Soviet-Afghan war continued for another decade. Similarly, boycotts during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in response to Beijing’s tight control of Tibet, the clampdown on monks and nuns who called for more autonomy, and Beijing’s connections with the Western Sudan genocide were also unsuccessful as President Bush and other European leaders attended the Olympics. Both of these instances illustrate the ineffective nature of Olympic boycotts as host countries do not feel threatened enough to enact improvements.
Though government officials committed to the boycotts this year, their efforts are still unlikely to bring change. While it is true the display of international concern sheds light on China’s human rights injustices,the mere absence of high ranking officials in the Olympics will not be enough to compel China to enact human rights improvements. While China works hard to maintain the grandeur of the Olympics and ensure it runs smoothly, the diplomatic boycotts seem like a threat to China’s efforts. Therefore, the boycotts are more likely to elicit negative political relations and hostility than to nudge China to revisit human rights abuses.
By involving politics in the Olympics, intended to promote global communities and patriotism, the lighthearted spirit of the Olympics is unnecessarily tarnished. Participants of the games are put in an uncomfortable situation, a majority of whom remain silent in the fear of getting credentials revoked or getting entangled in politics. Joel Johnson, head coach of Team USA Hockey, stated “we’re not ignoring anything that goes on in the world, but our narrow approach is just to focus on what we can control, and right now, that’s coming to the rink everyday and preparing to play.” Furthermore, the politicization of the Olympics strains the relationships between boycotting countries and China, who sees these boycotts as an offensive method of politicizing a “venue of global friendship”. Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared the boycotts are a “naked political provocation[…]a serious offense to 1.4 billion Chinese people” (Radnofsky). It is clear that China is very aware of their global image, and is unwilling to tolerate bold, suggestive political moves during such a momentous occasion like the Olympics.
The fact of the matter is there is no appropriate opportunity to properly discuss China’s human rights situation during the Olympics. Whatever attention that was initially drawn to China’s controversies will inevitably be swept to the side in the presence of exciting Olympic victories and increased attention towards star athletes. If the boycotting countries truly wanted to force China to face their injustices head on, doing so during the Olympics is a poor choice. Instead, they should focus their efforts on using traditional diplomacy to be more professional and send a powerful message in a way that does not give room for China’s controversies to be swept under the rug.
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