Should we boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics?

As the Olympic Games in Tokyo draw to a close and we look back on two weeks which has laid bare serious issues of wellbeing of athletes and blatant sexism in sport funding, as well as some brilliant performances in an incredible range of sports.

I hadn’t realised negotiating complicated climbing walls at speed was an internationally recognised sport but I swear I didn’t draw breath as I watched people take their lives in their hands.

And the cross country cycling was brutal with all sorts of obstacles thrown in the path of the riders.

I hadn’t been particularly invested in these Games but got drawn in.

Preparing to compete in the biggest of international sporting events is hard enough in the best of circumstances.  Athletes have to endure crushing physical and mental pressures and make huge sacrifices. Behind every length in the swimming pool in an Olympic final are years, maybe decades of getting up at 5am to do a couple of hours in a pool before school and evening training. But the pandemic added an extra layer of complexity to their preparation with athletes having to lift weights in their gardens rather than the gym.

Because of the year’s delay to the 2020 Olympics, it’s just six months until the Olympic circus starts up again for the Winter Olympics. I may be petrified of snow and ice in all its forms if I have to walk on them, but I’m quite happy to watch people lie down on tea trays and speed down helter skelters at amazing speeds, or jump off a high ramp on skis.

The problem with this event is that it takes place in Beijing. Would our participation in these Games in the wake of the brutality of the Chinese Government towards the Uyghur Muslims be in any way appropriate?

Ed Davey thinks not. In February, he called for us to boycott the Games. From The Guardian:

Davey said the UK had allowed its sports stars to be used for propaganda in the past, such as when the England football team was instructed to give a Nazi salute in 1935.

“No doubt we will hear teams, sponsors and governing bodies say the Olympics and Paralympics should be separate from politics and that they are just concentrating on sport. But in the face of genocide, that just isn’t good enough,” Davey said.

“The 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games will be used as a propaganda tool for a regime committing genocide. Team GB, ParalympicsGB and the government have a moral responsibility to consider if sending a team to these Games is really the right thing to do.”

He said that unless the Chinese government ordered the closure of detention camps in Xinjiang, ended Uighur forced labour and ethnic cleansing, stopped sterilising Uighur women and stopped the torture and rape of Uighurs, then Team GB, ParalympicsGB and ministers should announce a boycott. “Our brightest and best athletes should not be forced to be part of a propaganda exercise for the Chinese Communist party while it tries to wipe the Uighur people off the face of the planet.”

It was a good call, a year out, to try to put international pressure on China to stop the atrocities against the Uyghurs.

I can totally see his point. Why should China be allowed the status of prestigious international events when they are committing atrocities against the Uyghurs, not to mention the routine human rights abuses which take place on a daily basis there?

I also sympathise with the athletes who would be denied their chance to compete at the highest level. Their opportunity may not come again. There is an argument that international sport should not be used for political purposes in this way.

But then if we impose trade sanctions on a country that also impacts on businesses and jobs here and causes hardship for people. Why should sports be a special case?

What do you think? Is Ed right to call for a boycott of Beijing? And, if not, how else do we put enough pressure on China to make them stop their appalling abuses?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Brad Barrows 8th Aug '21 - 11:47am

    If the Liberal Democrats are going to call for a sporting boycott of China over the Chinese actions against the Uighurs, I expect the Party will also be calling for a complete sporting boycott of Israel over its actions against the Palestinians. If not, it deserves its comments on the Beijing Olympics to be ignored

  • John Marriott 8th Aug '21 - 12:42pm

    Why not? The cynic in me reckons that our chances of winning Olympic medals in winter sports are pretty slim in any case – a bit different to the summer Olympics. So, what’s to lose if you want to seem virtuous?

    You would do far more good, and probably do more harm to China, if you advocated a boycott of all Chinese made goods. However, that might cause other problems given how much we currently buy that is made over there!

    Hoisted by our own petard?

  • Bruce Kidd has a recent article on the issue and makes some good points. He writes:
    “Instead of the IOC knuckling under host country repression, as it did in Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014, it should ensure that the freedom of expression now guaranteed in the revised Rule 50 should be respected during the 2022 Winter Olympics. Activists should insist that no one will be penalized under the revised rule.
    Secondly, the IOC should affirm the importance of human rights and full intercultural exchange in the opening ceremonies and the schedule of events and meetings in the Olympic Village, as modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin always intended. That would give athletes and others concerned about human rights the opportunity to express their views freely with other Olympic participants and their hosts without constraint.”
    The government appears to be moving in the direction of a political representation boycott i.e. UK athletes will compete but ministers and members of the Royal family. would not attend. But as Ed Davey says “…in the face of genocide, that just isn’t good enough.”
    The BBC report quotes Charles Parton, a former British diplomat in China and now senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute: “Xi is the overall architect of the policy against the Uighurs. It is very centralised and it goes to the very top. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this is Xi Jinping’s policy.
    It was unlikely that Xi or other top party officials would have directed or authorised rape or torture, but they would certainly be aware of it.
    I think they prefer at the top just to turn a blind eye. The line has gone out to implement this policy with great sternness, and that is what is happening. That left no real constraints. I just don’t see what the perpetrators of these acts would have to hold them back.”

  • David Garlick 9th Aug '21 - 1:28pm

    We should be gathering support for such aboycot from around the world.
    Going it alone would not be useful as it would be ignored by China. Only if there is a concerted effort by a large number of countries would it be productive.
    Brad is correct however. If we are to start this sort of action then we must be doing so in similar circumstances around the world. China and Israel are but two of a number of such states.
    A move away from purchasing from China would be more productive as John points out. Hit them where it hurts, in this case in the pocket.

  • Catherine Royce 9th Aug '21 - 3:55pm

    Soft power and diplomacy would be much more effective, its a bit late to pretend we are not trading partners, and have been for decades, most of our homes are stuffed with China-made goods, not to mention current massive national infrastructure projects.
    We are the party of internationalism, not knee-jerk politics with unintended, ill-thought through consequences. We can make it very clear that the treatment of Uighers ( and other groups in other places) is totally unacceptable and in contravention of international law.
    Our voice will be much more effective if joined by others in the international community of nations. A starting point for us Liberal Democrats will be through the ALDE network.

  • David Evans 9th Aug '21 - 5:37pm

    Sadly the only people who believe in Britain’s soft power or diplomatic abilities when it comes to China, are those who are unwilling to face up to the existential threat China poses to Western liberal democracies. It gives not two hoots for what we or any other nations say, and if we carry on doing nothing, it will carry on doing whatever it wants, in Hong Kong, the South China Sea , to the Uhigurs, Tibet and to countless other countries it has lent the money we have spent on its goods at usurous terms.

    Whatever Boris Johnson may pretend to himself, the Chinese have taken no notice whatsoever of his pronouncements on the Uhigurs, Hong Kong, Treaties or International Law. We should not do anything that indicates his failed bluster and naive optimism are anything other than a total sham designed to cover his inadequacy.

    Equally though, GB not turning up would be nothing but an opportunity to the Chinese government to pour out its scorn about us in its usual endearing way. The best things we can do is take part, beat them in whatever events we can, keep a close eye on the timing mechanisms they use and for no-one to go there to watch.

  • What does Sir Vincent think about it, Caron ?

  • For a solo protest, I suspect participation and a subtle message from athletes would appropriate.

    If it were to be a boycott it would need to be substantial…now is the time to discover which.

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