Why boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics could backfire

Why boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics could backfire

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics now over, attention is turning to next year's Winter Olympics in the Chinese capital Beijing.

And with less than six months to go, pressure is mounting on the United States and other democracies to boycott the Games, given the strong evidence of genocide occurring in Xinjiang against the Uyghur population and other serious human rights violations in restive regions such as Tibet.

China has repeatedly denied human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet and has called allegations of genocide "preposterous."

However, a letter signed by more than 180 campaign groups warn that the Games will only embolden China's ruling Communist Party. A group of Republican senators believe the event should be moved to another country. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argues that foreign leaders attending will lose their moral standing.
The anger against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is understandable, as are calls to boycott the Games.

China will use the Winter Olympics to boost its prestige and standing on the global stage by holding an impeccably organized international event and seek to enhance the legitimacy of its authoritarian values. There is a moral duty to counter the CCP's attempts to cover-up or else downplay the importance of human rights by an aspiring Chinese superpower.

But it is not just about fighting the good fight, but a smart one as well. The key is to maintain, rather than release the pressure on the regime. A full boycott involving the non-attendance of dignitaries, officials, athletes, and even corporate sponsors might seem like the only moral option, but it could prove to be counterproductive. Fortunately, there is a better alternative.

For democracies, the Olympics gives the world a greater and more accurate insight into the country and its people. This remains true of the Tokyo 2020 Games despite the necessary Covid-19 restrictions. For autocrats, it is a high stakes opportunity to manipulate and control the way outsiders see their country, society, and institutions. Think of Berlin in 1936 or Moscow in 1980. In more recent times, Chinese authorities harassed and intimidated journalists in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Games to ensure favorable or else uncontroversial press coverage.

With that in mind, why not a full boycott in 2022? After all, it would cause immediate embarrassment for Beijing. One problem is that a US-led full boycott is unlikely to attract a large contingent of countries to follow suit as China would use its economic leverage to coerce smaller countries from doing the same.

With the US and perhaps a small band of democracies making that stand, China will inevitably frame the boycotters as a small group of disgruntled outliers. Even worse if the US is by itself. After the initial embarrassment, and as the world's attention turns to the sporting contest, China will position itself as the emerging leader of the non-US aligned group of nations. Beijing is sure to emphasize that most of the latter are developing economies with little in common with the developed liberal democracies nations of the West.

The better approach would be the US and others only refusing to send leaders and senior political officials to attend and persuading other countries to do the same. This is to deny Beijing the opportunity to exploit the image it wants of graciously hosting world leaders at the same time it is systematically abusing its own citizens. Sen. Mitt Romney has even suggested that the White House can invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent the US at the event.

That cannot be all. At the same time, participation by US athletes and the accompanying media contingent should be encouraged and supported to use the grand stage of the Winter Olympics to give the world a better insight into the workings of authoritarian institutions in China and shine a light on the terrible reality of the human right abuses taking place in the country.

For example, in the lead-up and during the Games, foreign media should receive diplomatic support to break out of what will be stifling restrictions on where they can go, what they can report on, and who they can talk to. When Chinese authorities inevitably clamp down on their activities, the restrictions ought to become the story alongside reporting on the performances of athletes.

In the months before the Games, the US and others should launch a concerted and public campaign to compel the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to protect the rights of athletes and other participants to voice their views in support for human rights, even if the IOC is unable to respect the provisions of its own Olympic Charter. Individuals should not be punished if they choose to do so. Bear in mind that the Charter promotes so-called principles of Olympism which includes universal fundamental ethical principles and prohibits discrimination of any kind, including on the basis of race or religion.

If the IOC punishes those voicing their support for human rights, the body is exposed as craven and hypocritical. Regardless, the airing of these views on Chinese soil will help expose Beijing's Potemkin facade that the rights of its minorities are respected. And if Beijing reacts angrily to such gestures, then its incapacity for tolerance will be similarly exposed.

Denying Beijing the propaganda victory it craves is difficult but important work given the nature and scale of its human rights violations. Entering the contest, rather than removing oneself from it, is a good place to begin.

Dr. John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and United States Studies Centre where he is an adjunct professor. From 2016-2018, he served as senior national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

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