World will not boycott Beijing’s Winter Olympics

April 19, 2021 08:41
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“Holding the 2022 Olympics in Beijing whilst China carries out genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim people is not compatible with the Olympic principles.”

So reads the complaint of the World Uyghur Congress (UWC) to the Ethics Committee of the International Olympics Committee (IOC). It called on it to move the Winter Olympics from Beijing in February 2022.

Over 180 human rights groups and activists have called on governments around the world to boycott the game. Earlier this month, the U.S. government spoke publicly it for the first time. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that boycotting the Olympics was “something that [the U.S.] wish[es] to discuss” with its allies as a further means to object to the crisis in Xinjiang.

But such a boycott is very unlikely, for business, diplomatic and sporting reasons. The Cold War between China and the West will intensify this year on other fronts, but the skiers, skaters and other athletes can continue their preparations.

The first reason against a boycott is the limited number of countries to take part. The only ones would be the U.S. and its allies. But Japan and South Korea, both strong in winter sports, would not take part. Tokyo would risk a boycott of its games this summer, and both countries want to take part in the Asian Games in Hangzhou in September 2022.

Canada and the U.S. are hosting the 2026 World Cup, the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 2030 Winter Olympics in 2030. A boycott of the games next February could lead to a boycott of these major events by China and its allies.

The U.S, Canada and the countries of north and west Europe have strong winter sports teams desperate to take part. For many athletes, this will be the only games in which they can participate. In the 23 winter games between 1924 and 2018, the six countries that won the most medals were Germany, Norway, Russia, U.S. Austria and Canada.

The second reason is commercial. The IOC opposes a boycott. It earns over 90 per cent of its revenue from selling broadcast rights to Olympic events. Without athletes from major nations, these rights are worth little.
A boycott would bring retaliation by Beijing against companies from those countries that enforced it. Western companies have invested billions of dollars in operations in China; it has become one of their most important markets. Already trapped in the Cold War between China and the U.S., they oppose further sources of conflict.

The third reason is that a boycott would not change Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang. In 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – but it did not lead to a withdrawal. In retaliation, the Soviet Union organised a boycott of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles.

During that Cold War, western investment in and trade with the Soviet bloc was minimal. So economic losses to both sides were negligible. The economic stakes this time are immeasurably larger.

In an editorial on April 10, the Financial Times argued against a boycott. It said that a sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era was only effective because it was accompanied by economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Even with a boycott, most western companies would continue to pursue as usual with China, it said. “There would be no economic boycott to go alongside the sporting boycott.”

It said that a better way for western leaders to show their disapproval of the policies in Xinjiang would be to stay away from the event and leave their athletes to take part in an event for which they had prepared for years, for many the most important moment of their sporting careers.
A further complicating factor is the nature of the issue – the “re-education camps” and allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang.

In South Africa, the apartheid system was there for everyone to see; the government was proud of it. In Afghanistan, everyone could witness the Soviet troops, tanks and artillery. There was no dispute about the invasion.
But the two narratives on Xinjiang, of the UWC and the Chinese government, directly contradict each other; they have no common ground. Beijing calls the accounts of the UWC and its supporters “lies” and “disinformation”.

Foreign diplomats and officials of the United Nations have been unable to agree with Beijing the terms and conditions of a visit to Xinjiang that could provide a third-party and objective account. Such agreement is unlikely during 2021, so the shouting dialogue of the deaf will continue.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.