Beijing Diplomatic Boycott during the 2022 Winter Olympics - Why it matters
At over 3000 years old, the Olympics is one of the oldest sporting events in human history. It occurs quadrennially, with over 200 countries taking part. Countries vie for the coveted title of host country and go neck and neck to outbid other nations.
However, an international event brings a host of cross-border conflicts, especially when host nations themselves find themselves the subject of criticism. This is the predicament that China finds itself in as it gears up to host the 2022 edition of the Winter Olympics.
Why has a diplomatic boycott been called?
The Olympics, one of the largest international meetings outside of the United Nations and major summits, usually attract high-ranking officials from numerous countries. However, as a show of disapproval of China's human rights violations, several countries will not be doing so this time.
This is a “diplomatic” boycott, as it does not affect player participation. However, it allows countries to disassociate themselves from the actions of the host nation by not sending high-level officials as tradition mandates.
China has been accused of genocide by human rights organizations and Western nations in the Xinjiang area. China rejects this, claiming that its detention centers are used to "re-educate" Uyghurs and other Muslims.
Between 1 million and 3 million more Uighurs have been unlawfully incarcerated in so-called "reeducation centers.”
They have been compelled to participate in psychological indoctrination programs such as studying communist ideology and expressing gratitude to Chinese President Xi Jinping. As part of the indoctrination process, Chinese officials are said to have employed waterboarding and other forms of torture, including sexual abuse.
Using satellite images and other data, researchers from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have identified over 380 re-education camps, detention centers, and prisons in Xinjiang, with at least 61 being extended or renovated in the last year.
International relations are also particularly strained as a result of the repression of political freedom and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, as well as concerns over tennis star Peng Shuai, who vanished from public view after accusing a prominent Chinese government official of sexual assault, only to resurface days later claiming that she never made such accusations. Despite the Chinese authorities' condemnation of "malicious conjecture" regarding her case, there is still widespread concern about her.
The United States was the first country to declare a diplomatic boycott. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the decision was to protest "the PRC's egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang." On Wednesday, Canada, Australia, and the U.K. all followed suit. Lithuania and Kosovo have also announced diplomatic boycotts.
New Zealand indicated earlier this year that it would not be sending any ambassadors owing to pandemic travel concerns but has also expressed concern about human rights abuses in China. Japan announced on Dec. 24 that it would not send an official government delegation to the Games but avoided calling it a diplomatic boycott to maintain relations with China, its largest trade partner.
How has China responded?
On the one hand, Beijing has attempted to downplay the impact by claiming that the countries in question were not invited, while on the other, its Foreign Ministry has warned of “countermeasures” that have yet to be described. Meanwhile, China's media has primarily downplayed allegations of boycotts, emphasizing how the authorities are going to great lengths to ensure the games go on without any snags.
Beyond the expected remarks condemning the "politicization" of sports, there is undoubtedly an internal political undertone to the games, which are intended to showcase China's resilience and re-emergence to a national audience and enhance the Communist Party's and President Xi Jinping's domestic reputations.
Is this the first time there has been such a boycott?
In short, no. There have been multiple demands for boycotts of the Olympics throughout history, particularly at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany and opposition to apartheid, South Africa's planned participation in the 1968 Olympics. With a few exceptions, such as the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and 1984, the former seeing 65 countries boycotting the games, Olympic participants and nations involved have rarely boycotted the Olympic Games completely.
Will the boycott truly have any impact?
A diplomatic boycott appears, at first glance, to be a "light" version of not sending athletes to the Olympics. However, this is far from the truth.
When dealing with global superpowers such as China, a diplomatic boycott becomes more powerful as more governments join in. Ultimately, the major event may be harmed to some extent, depending on the severity of the boycott.
China is often considered a "global force" and a "world political heavyweight." Since it is expected that China may retaliate with counter-reactions elsewhere, countries must think very carefully about the degree to which a diplomatic boycott is initiated in this case. This can result in aggravations countries wouldn't want to deal with. However, the boycott most certainly sends the message across.
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Surabhi Paraki is a Journalism and Communications student at Jain University. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth.