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A picture taken on June 9, 2020 shows the Olympic flag flying next to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Canada should boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 in response to China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, says Canada’s former top diplomat to a city whose freedoms are coming under the increasingly direct control of authorities in mainland China.

Over the past few years, relations have been strained between China and a number of major Winter Olympic medal-winning countries, including the United States, Norway, Sweden, South Korea, Japan and Canada, whose athletes are preparing to compete in Beijing even as China continues to incarcerate Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Canada also counts an estimated 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, where Beijing is extending its control through the introduction of a new law, expected this month, that will criminalize conduct that Chinese authorities consider secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference. Ottawa has unsuccessfully sought to pressure Beijing to release Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. It has also criticized the new law for Hong Kong, without any result.

Why are Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor still detained in China? A guide to the story so far

Hundreds of protesters gather to mark a year of pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong

Now, it’s time for Ottawa to make a more assertive response, says John Higginbotham, who from 1989 to 1994 was commissioner for Canada in Hong Kong, a role equivalent to an ambassador. Mr. Higginbotham was previously posted as a diplomat to Beijing.

The next “Winter Games are in February, 2022, not long from now. China wants them badly as the latest pageant of national power and prestige,” he said. Canada should organize a boycott of those Games unless China ”lays off Hong Kong,” he said. With the exception of Russia, he noted, “Winter Olympics are easier to organize a boycott than Summer. Medals are concentrated in a few friendly, cold, democratic countries.”

Others, too, have called for a boycott of the Beijing Games. Advocates for China’s Uyghur population have said it would be wrong for Western athletes to come to Beijing at a time when the largely Muslim group has been forcibly incarcerated for political indoctrination.

China’s actions toward Hong Kong, which it has promised a high degree of autonomy, have created new concern.

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Protesters gather against new security laws in Hong Kong, May 24, 2020.LAM YIK FEI/The New York Times News Service

“Boycotting the 2022 Olympics is one of the ways for the world to challenge China’s decision and urge for the withdrawal of this evil law,” said Joshua Wong, one of the most visible young activists in Hong Kong.

”The new security law is just another new weapon for Beijing to leverage political pressure, which puts all Canadians working and living in the city under threat,” he added. To defend “the city’s autonomy and the Canadian interests in this global financial city, I call upon the Canadian government to reconsider Hong Kong’s special treatment and take all necessary actions to oppose the national security law.”

Canada’s foreign ministry referred a question on the 2022 Olympics to Canadian Heritage, which said in a statement: “The decision on whether or not to participate in the Olympic and Paralympic Games lies with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees.” The Canadian Olympic Committee did not respond to a request for comment.

In China, scholars dismissed the possible impact of any Olympics snub. “Unlike small to medium-sized countries, I don’t think a Winter Olympics boycott would bring any detrimental effect to China,” said Wang Yizhou, a prominent Chinese foreign policy thinker who is deputy dean of the school of international studies at Peking University.

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In this March 4, 2020, file photo, people wearing masks walk past the Olympic rings near the New National Stadium in Tokyo.The Associated Press

Prof. Wang himself raised concern over the impact of Beijing moving too quickly to intrude on Hong Kong’s autonomy. But “I don’t think rising criticism or foreign pressure would wound China,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if some countries decide to quit the Winter Olympics, honestly.”

It’s not the first time people have called for exclusion of an Olympics in China. In advance of the 2008 Summer Games, amid criticism of Beijing for not doing more to end violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser, saying his ”conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual.” Actress Mia Farrow had branded the Beijing Games the “Genocide Olympics.” Across Europe and North America, lawmakers decried the 2008 Summer Games, and some national leaders, including Canada’s Stephen Harper and Germany’s Angela Merkel, declined to attend the opening ceremony.

But Canada and Germany still sent teams to the 2008 Games, which marked a major moment in China’s modern history. The Olympics cast a favourable spotlight on Beijing as a warm host, efficient organizer and co-operative global partner.

Since then, however, views on China have darkened among major Western democracies. China took years of trade measures against Norway after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. Chinese authorities angered Sweden after Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship, was seized from Thailand and sentenced to prison in China. Japan and South Korea have long-standing frictions with China over territorial disputes. Chinese diplomats have created anger across Europe for comments considered insulting or hostile.

The 2022 Olympics “may well be seen by some governments as a possible pressure point on China,” said Brian Bridges, a scholar of politics and sport who is an affiliate fellow of the Centre of Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University.

Against that backdrop, “whether it’s Canada, European governments or the U.S., the idea that they would pull out as a national policy seems far, far more likely” in 2022 than it was in 2008, said Matt Ferchen, head of global China research at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Canada has participated in Olympics boycotts before. In 1980, it joined the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games as a protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Afghanistan. Conversely, more than two dozen countries boycotted the Montreal Games in protest against a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa.

China, too, joined the boycott of the Moscow Games. It also did not send athletes to the 1976 Games, following a dispute over Taiwan’s participation.

The 2022 Olympics, however, are likely to take place against economic fallout from the pandemic, which has caused widespread unemployment and corporate losses. China, the world’s second-largest economy, stands to be a major force in supporting a global recovery.

“I just wonder how far even the liberal democracies are worried about upsetting the Chinese,” said Alan Bairner, a professor of sport at the Leicestershire, Britain-based Loughborough University.

But there are other arguments to pursue Olympic action, he said. For Britain, in particular, “there is a debt owed to the Hong Kong people, because we were the last colonial administrators.” Some of the arguments used to defend participation in the 2008 Olympics also no longer seem as compelling.

“It’s quite obvious that allowing China to go ahead with the Beijing Summer Games didn’t necessarily improve things for certain groups of people in Chinese society,” said Prof. Bairner, author of The Politics of the Olympics: A Survey and the Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics.

That said, China under President Xi Jinping has shown decreasing willingness to defer to international criticism of issues it considers its own internal affairs. The 2022 Olympics, too, has less symbolic value to China, whose national strength and state competence have already become widely accepted facts.

An Olympics boycott, said Mr. Ferchen, “might lead to an even greater cycle of Western countries saying, ’We’re unhappy with you, China,’ and China saying, ‘We don’t care.’”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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