The game, and the politics
Two months before the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing on February 6 next year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses”. She went on to add “The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games”. It is doubtful if this highly nuanced US approach will either change China’s behaviour towards its Uighur Muslim minority or persuade the majority of countries to speak out against Chinese behaviour towards them. Why?
The Winter Olympics which are held every four years have begun to attract sportspeople from more countries than in the past but their appeal is still limited for they consist only of those sports that are played on snow and ice. The last Games which was held in 2018 in South Korea saw representation from 92 countries and 2833 athletes. This is not close to the 205 countries and 11,326 sportspeople who participated in the last summer Games which was to be held in 2020 but was organised in July/August this year in Japan. As the Winter Olympics appeal is limited any action taken relating to them will also necessarily attract less attention. Further, by not stopping the participation of its sportspeople, the US step, which has since been adopted by its allies, Canada, Britain and Australia, will only be seen as an opportunistic and no-cost gesture. Significantly the French have not joined the diplomatic and official boycott for they obviously feel it does not serve any purpose. France’s president Emmanuel Macron said it was symbolic and insignificant.
Instead of ignoring the US and other countries’ official boycott China condemned the move. Its spokesperson said that the US and its allies decision violated the principle of not politicising sports. It also warned the boycotting countries that China would respond though it did not spell out how and when it would do so. It is noteworthy that while the Soviet Union and the then East Bloc countries had boycotted the 1984 summer Los Angeles Olympic games the Chinese did not do so. By that time the Soviet-Chinese relationship had become very problematic and hence it was no surprise that China did not follow the Soviet lead. The Soviet action was in response to the US and its Western allies boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet ingress into Afghanistan. Both the 1980 and the 1984 boycotts included athletes and officials.
While the Chinese spokesperson may have condemned injecting politics in sports, the fact is that international sports is highly politicised. It raises the emotions of nations and involves national prestige. Hence, countries often use sports to send out diplomatic signals. The US action is therefore neither without precedent nor is it completely unexpected. This is because in taking on China the US is seeking to use all opportunities to profile its lack of respect for human rights.
The Chinese record of violating the rights of its Uighur minority is widely believed by now. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has done substantial work in cataloguing Chinese actions against the Uighur since 2017. It has concluded that China has undertaken five sets of steps against them: mass internments, forced labour, mass at-home surveillance, birth control and continuous propaganda. China has angrily dismissed these charges. It acknowledges that there are re-education facilities where Uighurs are being trained to make them fit for modern life. This is hardly tenable for in reality China is violating the cultural and religious rights of the Uighur Muslim minority. There have been reports of its disallowing Ramzan fasts as well as men keeping beards. There have also been reports of China sending Uighur as ‘forced labour’ to multi-national factories located on Chinese territory. The US has responded by prohibiting entry of goods suspected to be made using such labour and imposing sanctions against entities and individuals suspected to be involved in the repression of the Uighurs.
While the Western countries have become vocal on the Uighur’s others are wary of getting in the China-West cross fire. Many countries are also concerned about China’s ire. This particularly applies to those who are beneficiaries of Chinese assistance through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or otherwise. Significantly, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which is usually in the forefront of strongly taking up the cause of Muslim minority communities everywhere has, as yet, refused to take a position on the Uighur issue. It has confined itself to only mentioning the Uighurs as part of its general formulations expressing concern for Muslim minorities in all non-Islamic countries. Naturally, China has taken great satisfaction at the OIC’s approach and continues to repress the Uighur’s.
Clearly, the diplomatic and official boycott of the Beijing Olympics will not change the approach of the OIC or a large section of the developing world on China’s violation of human rights of its ethnic minorities, including the Uighurs. It may, however, satisfy US domestic opinion that the Biden administration is taking on China as opportunities arise. Many foreign policy decisions are taken to cater to domestic public opinion. This seems to be one of them.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.