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opinion

China, Charles Lewis says, has no regard for human rights.FABRIZIO BENSCH/Reuters

Charles Lewis is a former editor and reporter for the National Post.

I will not be watching the Beijing Olympics.

It won’t make a whit of difference to anyone but me. But I simply can’t take part in even watching a glamorous athletic competition in a country in which ethnic minority groups are reportedly jailed, tortured, raped and killed. To watch a skiing event knowing that there are scores of people in concentration camps in that same country would be grotesque.

China, like other totalitarian regimes that came before it, has no regard for human rights – especially among those who should somehow defy their rulers even if simply by dint of their ethnicity or religion.

That is exactly what China has done to many predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, particularly the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. But somehow the countries of the world have decided that the mistreatment of these people is not worth sending a message of rebuke through a meaningful boycott of the Games. It’s unconscionable – and it’s as if we’ve learned nothing from a similar scenario 86 years ago.

In the years prior to the 1936 Berlin Games, Germany was focused on what it called “the Jewish question.” That meant a massive antisemitic campaign that involved stripping Jews of their citizenship, forcing them out of most professions and closing schools to young Jewish boys and girls. Even Jewish men who had fought for Germany in the First World War were shown no quarter. There were rules about when Jews could shop, when they were allowed to ride public transportation, and even whether they could own pets. There were also credible reports of anti-Jewish violence. To top it off, the infamous concentration camp at Dachau had been operational for three years by the time of the opening ceremonies.

But few voices called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics. The main argument for sending athletes and delegations to the Olympics was that sports and politics should never mix. Besides, said advocates, it would be unfair to the athletes, who had worked so hard.

Ahead of the Games, the Nazis ordered the removal of anti-Jewish posters and other visible signs of their Jew hatred. Those visiting Germany began to believe that the complaints they heard about the treatment of Jews were more hype than reality.

Germany in 1936 was still in the early stages of what would be the Holocaust, so it remained hard to imagine how bad things would get. For German Jews, however, it was already a time of foreboding after years of non-stop harassment.

Today, as the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim groups suffer, no one can say this situation isn’t dangerous. This time, we know too much.

Take this recent missive from the Council of Foreign Relations: “The Chinese government has imprisoned more than one million people since 2017 and subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labour and forced sterilizations.” A notice from Amnesty International was equally stark: “The Chinese government appears to be trying to wipe out religious beliefs and aspects of cultural identity to enforce political loyalty.”

And yet, countries are still sending their athletes to participate in the Olympics.

Imagine being a Uyghur who has lost everything, who is being treated as a criminal and worse – only to find out that the world couldn’t care less.

Imagine how bitterly they would laugh at hearing that some countries, such as Canada, are “protesting” by not sending its diplomats to the Games. “Weak” doesn’t even come close to describing that approach.

Christians who have refused to turn over their religious authority to the state have also suffered in China, albeit less harshly. Many Protestant house churches have seen their pastors and flock persecuted just for praying and reading the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, had to cut a deal in 2018 that allowed Beijing to have a say in the appointment of bishops. That may not seem like much, unless you’re a faithful Catholic who thinks the state – any state – should not have any say in how their church is run.

The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. The government is deeply paranoid that its authority could be undermined by a competing ideology or belief system. And the ways in which it has cracked down on Christians and reportedly engaged in acts of genocide against Muslims simply cannot be ignored.

In fact, we promised we wouldn’t. After the Second World War, the expression Nie Wieder – never again – was heard throughout the Western world. Never again, we said, would the world avert its eyes to such barbarity as the Holocaust and other forms of death and cruelty.

But now, Nie Wieder has become conditional. Never again – unless, apparently, it means interrupting skiing competitions and hockey games.