W Power 2024

The diplomatic boycott shadowing 2022 Beijing Olympics

Joe Biden and US diplomats, New Zealand and Australian diplomats are all staying home while Vladimir Putin may attend the 24th Winter Olympics in Beijing which is due to open in less than two months—the diplomatic sit-out intends to protest China's repressive policies

By Steven Lee Myers and Steven Erlanger
Published: Dec 8, 2021

The diplomatic boycott shadowing 2022 Beijing OlympicsA view of National Ski Jumping Centre, Zhangjiakou, one of the venues of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China?
Tingshu Wang / Reuters

SEOUL — Neither President Joe Biden nor other U.S. officials are going, but the Russian leader might. New Zealand says it decided months ago that its diplomats would not be attending. On Wednesday, Australia said its officials would be staying home, too. Political leaders of other nations are expected to bow out, too, whether they announce an explicit reason or not.

In less than two months, China will open the 24th Winter Olympics in Beijing under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic and now also a diplomatic boycott intended to protest the host country’s repressive policies.

The White House announcement on Monday that it would send no official delegation prompted anger in Beijing, where Chinese officials on Tuesday once again vowed to retaliate.

“This will only make people see the sinister intentions of the American side and will only make the American side lose more morality and credibility,” said a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian.

A prominent columnist for state media, Chen Weihua of China Daily, bitingly expressed hope that Biden would live long enough to see China boycott the Summer Olympics to be held in Los Angeles in 2028.

Although the effect of Biden’s decision on other countries remains to be seen, several have already signaled that they, too, will seek ways to express displeasure with China’s policies while stopping short of prohibiting athletes from attending.

The decision will be especially complicated for European nations, which have sharply criticized China’s abuses of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The European Union has just renewed for another year the business and travel restrictions it imposed a year ago on officials involved in the crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.

And in July, the European Parliament, which often takes strong moral positions, overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution calling on diplomatic officials to boycott the Winter Olympics “unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.”

At the same time, many European countries have extensive trade ties with Beijing that they do not want to jeopardize, especially for a measure that is likely only to offend China, not change it.

An official response Tuesday from the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, to a question about the boycott offered no support for the U.S. position.

Major sporting events like the Olympics, with their universal audiences, “can be instrumental for spreading positive values and promoting freedom and human rights at global level,” the commission said in a statement. “We are ready to contribute to that end. However, such platforms should not be used for political propaganda.”

Attendance at the Olympics in whatever form is a decision for individual member states, which are sure to be divided on this issue, as on much else.

Italy would not join the U.S. boycott, an Italian government official said Tuesday, while France, Germany and Britain were noncommittal.

If the Italian position changes, however, it will be a direct blow to Beijing. Italy will host the Winter Games in 2026 and would be expected by Olympic tradition to send official emissaries to these Games, accepting the baton, as it were, from one host to another.

At a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, citing concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and China’s criticism of Australia’s plans for new nuclear submarines — along with Beijing’s reluctance to discuss the issues — said the country’s government officials would “not be going to China for these games. Australian athletes will though.”

Only a handful of world leaders attended the Summer Games in Tokyo, which were held after a year’s delay because of the coronavirus pandemic. They included President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose country will host the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024, and he may be expected to attend these games because of protocol.

His office said Tuesday that Macron had taken note of the U.S. diplomatic boycott and that France would “coordinate at the European level” on the issue, Agence France-Presse reported.

“When we have concerns about human rights we let the Chinese know,” Macron’s office said. “We took sanctions related to Xinjiang last March.”

China’s critics praised the White House for focusing international attention on China’s long record of human rights abuses. Those include crackdowns in Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims have cycled through mass detention and re-education camps.

The International Campaign for Tibet said in a statement that a boycott was “the right choice both morally and strategically.”

Although the U.S. decision had been expected and, administration officials said, conveyed to Beijing in advance of Monday’s announcement, the Communist Party government appeared flustered, as well as angered.

Censors appeared to bar searches online for the word “boycott,” while initial reports in state media focused on statements by Chinese officials calling the efforts a politicization of a sporting event in violation of the Olympic spirit.

Officials in Beijing last week tried to preempt any prospect of a diplomatic boycott by saying they would not extend invitations to foreign leaders to attend the Winter Games, leaving that task to national Olympic committees around the world instead.

That, however, contradicted a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would attend at the invitation of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Xi attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 at a time when Russia, too, faced diplomatic boycotts.

The obstacles to attending the Beijing Olympics are not just diplomatic.

China has very stringent quarantine rules, requiring everyone who enters the country to spend two weeks in isolation, followed by a week or two of daily health monitoring at home or a hotel, with many restrictions on travel and social interactions.

The annoyances of the pandemic could diminish attendance, as they did in Tokyo. They could also give cover to nations that would simply rather not attend.

Putin, an avid sportsman and an increasingly close ally of Xi’s, has not yet given final confirmation of his attendance despite China’s public statement last month that he would attend the opening ceremony, to be held on Feb. 4 in Beijing’s National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird’s Nest.,

©2019 New York Times News Service

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