U.S. President Joe Biden announced Monday that the United States will not send government officials to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, in protest of China’s many human rights abuses. The question for Canada and other U.S. allies is whether to follow suit.
It’s complicated. There is no chance a so-called diplomatic boycott, in which a country’s elected and unelected officials stay home but its athletes still compete, will cause the Communist Party of China to change its stripes. It’s also a certainty that Beijing will retaliate against boycotting countries.
Potential diplomatic boycotters are already feeling the heat. The European Union passed a non-binding resolution in July calling on member nations to refuse invitations to the Winter Games because of Beijing’s deepening repression in Hong Kong.
But when asked about joining the U.S. boycott this week, and faced with the actual possibility of economic sanctions for doing so, a rather less tough-jawed European Commission issued a statement saying it was up to each member state to decide. The Olympics, it said, “should not be used for political propaganda.”
The question of whether to join the diplomatic boycott also touches on the question of how the West intends to deal with China. In the long run, Canada, the EU and the U.S. have no choice but to work with China on issues such as trade and climate change. Criticizing China’s behaviour cannot mean an end to engaging, and even co-operating, with it.
Critics see the Biden move as a meaningless gesture, a half-measure at best, which may impress voters in the U.S. but won’t improve human rights in Hong Kong or China itself. If you want to make a statement, why not boycott the Games altogether, athletes included, as the U.S., Canada and others did to the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. What is the point, otherwise?
In fact, though, there are compelling reasons for Canada to join the diplomatic boycott.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea the Games should not be used as a vehicle for political propaganda. For dictatorships like China and Russia, the Games are the definition of political propaganda. The CPC is of course using the Games to score jingoistic points with its own citizens, market itself to the world, and demonstrate how well it can operate without the messy encumbrances of democracy, free speech and law.
Let’s also dispense with the idea that participating in an Olympics held in a repressive dictatorship is an effective way of spreading democratic values or promoting human rights. China hosted the 2008 Summer Games; the crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s mass detention of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Region both came after. As for Russia, its invasion and occupation of the Crimea in the spring of 2014 began just days after the curtain went down on the Sochi Winter Games.
Plus, there are no meaningless gestures in diplomacy. A decision to attend, or not to attend, the Winter Games sends a signal, and Beijing’s heated rhetoric in reaction to America’s symbolic snub proves it has been stung by the move and fears other countries will follow suit.
Which is why Canada should do exactly that.
Beijing has lately been forcefully trying to set the terms of its relations with other countries, singling out those that don’t bend to its will.
That includes the hostage diplomacy that saw China kidnap two innocent Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in 2018 and hold them for close to three years in retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. Beijing only freed the two men in September after Ms. Meng was released as part of a U.S. deferred prosecution agreement.
It includes Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomacy, in which its spokespeople abrasively insult unco-operative countries on Twitter and in official statements. And it includes China’s use of economic sanctions, or the threat of them, to bring smaller countries to heel when they don’t toe Beijing’s line.
That’s why Canada and the EU should stand together and join the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. For too long, Beijing has been able to divide and conquer Western countries, using targeted sanctions, or worse.
The Winter Games would be the right moment for the democratic world to show a united front, and start resetting the terms of engagement.
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