Wednesday, December 8, 2021

UK, Canada join diplomatic boycott only of Beijing Winter Games...thats it?

UK, Canada join
diplomatic boycott only of Beijing Winter Games

  • Australia, UK, Canada say government officials will not attend
  • China accuses Britain of smear campaign
  • Japan also considering diplomatic boycott - media
  • U.S. first to announce boycott over human rights

OTTAWA/BEIJING, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Canada joined Australia, Britain and the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Wednesday, with China calling the boycotts "political posturing" and a smear campaign.

The United States was the first to announce the boycott this week, saying on Monday that its government officials would not attend February's Beijing Olympics because of China's human rights "atrocities", weeks after talks aimed at easing tense relations between the world's two largest economies.

China on Tuesday said the United States would "pay a price" for its decision and warned of countermeasures but gave no details. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought to play down the growing diplomatic boycott.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Beijing would be aware of long-standing Western concerns about human rights in China. "(So) it shouldn't be a surprise that we decided not to send diplomatic representation."

Trudeau's decision seems sure to add tension to a relationship already strained over the detention of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant.

Meng had been under house arrest in Vancouver, where she had fought extradition to the United States for almost three years on bank fraud charges. She was released and returned to China in September.

Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested by Beijing shortly after Meng's 2018 detention, were also freed in September.

Almost as Trudeau spoke, IOC President Thomas Bach said the Committee had always been concerned with the participation of the athletes in the Olympic Games.

So "we welcome the support for their Olympic teams all these governments have been emphasising," he told a video news conference. "This is giving the athletes certainty and this is what the IOC is about."

Asked earlier in parliament if his country would follow Washington's lead, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "There will be effectively a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, no ministers are expected to attend and no officials."

"I do not think that sporting boycotts are sensible and that remains the policy of the government," he added, indicating that British athletes will still compete.

China said it had not invited British officials.

"The Chinese government has not invited government ministers or officials from the UK to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics," a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in London said.

"Making an issue out of the presence of government officials at the Beijing Winter Olympics is in essence a political smearing campaign."


The Beijing 2022 emblem is seen on a countdown clock for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China December 7, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said its decision came because of Australia's struggles to reopen diplomatic channels with China to discuss alleged human rights abuses in the far western region of Xinjiang and Beijing's moves against Australian imports.

Announcing the plans, Morrison said Beijing had not responded to several issues raised by Canberra, including the rights abuse accusations.

China has denied any wrongdoing in Xinjiang and said allegations are fabricated.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing in Beijing that Australian politicians were engaged in "political posturing".

"Whether they come or not, nobody cares," he added.

The Australian Olympic Committee said the boycott would have no impact on athletes' preparations for the Games, which run from Feb. 4 to 20, adding that "diplomatic options" were a matter for governments.

For the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), a diplomatic boycott recognised the distinction between government and athlete participation while providing a platform to shine a light on China issues.

"The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee remain concerned about the issues in China but understand the Games will create an important platform to draw attention to them," said the COC in a statement.


Other U.S. allies have been slow to commit to joining the boycott, though Japan is considering not sending cabinet members to the Games, the Sankei Shimbun daily said on Wednesday, citing unidentified government sources.

"Countries' decisions to boycott the Olympics, that's their decision that they have to make for themselves," said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre. "It's up to them (other countries) to decide how they're going to move forward, and if they're going to boycott or not."

President Joe Biden's administration cited what the United States calls genocide against minority Muslims in China's Xinjiang region. China denies all rights abuses.

The United States is set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and is preparing to bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The American diplomatic boycott, encouraged for months by some members of the U.S. Congress and rights groups, is happening despite attempts to stabilise ties with a video meeting last month between Biden and China's Xi Jinping.

Why is Canada playing in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, amidst China's human rights abuses?

The 2022 Winter Games are set to open in Beijing, but many Canadians believe our athletes should not be going

Speedskating trials last October in Beijing, a controversial choice as host city for the 2022 Winter Games (Lintao Zhang/International Skating Union/Getty Images)

Speedskating trials last October in Beijing, a controversial choice as host city for the 2022 Winter Games (Lintao Zhang/International Skating Union/Getty Images)

The Olympic flame-lighting ceremony was underway at the Temple of Hera, the oldest temple at Olympia in Greece, as Chemi Lhamo hid nearby, hoping security wouldn’t spot her. She listened quietly as the actor playing the role of high priestess offered a symbolic prayer to Apollo, the Greek god of light. She watched as the iconic torch was lit. She waited until the flautist stopped playing.

Then, amid the silence, Lhamo made her presence known. “How can Beijing be allowed to host the Olympics given that they are committing a genocide against the Uighurs?” the Canadian shouted.

She called out in support of Taiwan, as well as those persecuted in Hong Kong and her homeland of Tibet—until security whisked her away. “I didn’t realize how loud I was,” Lhamo said in an interview, a week after her protest in mid-October. “After three days in jail, I got to see a video [of the incident], and people could actually hear my voice. I truly believe that voice came from somewhere within, amplified by all of the oppressed people around the world.”

READ: What it’s like to be on trial in China 

Lhamo has kept up her calls for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to find a new host nation for the 2022 Games. And she’s not the only one making her voice heard. More than 160 human rights and advocacy groups delivered a joint letter to the IOC in September saying the reputation of the Games and the Olympic spirit will suffer if the event is held in China. In Canada, Bloc Québécois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe spearheaded an open letter demanding a new location—and it earned multiparty support in the House of Commons. It condemned the Chinese government, stating that “close to two million Uighurs and Turkic Muslims are being held in concentration camps that Chinese authorities odiously refer to as ‘vocational training centres.’ ” It spoke of children being kidnapped, of women being sterilized and of cultural erasure.

Lhamo is calling on companies to drop their sponsorships and for official Olympic broadcasters like the CBC to highlight China’s human rights abuses in their coverage (Photograph by May Truong)

Lhamo is calling on companies to drop their sponsorships and for official Olympic broadcasters like the CBC to highlight China’s human rights abuses in their coverage 

“We are not asking our athletes to give up their Olympic dream, because we know full well how much effort will have gone into pursuing it,” the letter went on. “However, we believe that there is still time to demand that the International Olympic Committee move the Games to another country if the Chinese government continues its genocidal campaign.”

But with the Games slated to start in February, and the IOC steadfast in its decision to let the Chinese capital host them, many critics concede that a move is highly unlikely. Which leaves a question many Canadians are asking in the early weeks of 2022: should we be sending our athletes to Beijing at all?

“Canada should not be going,” says David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012. “I feel terrible for the athletes, but I feel worse for Uighurs who are imprisoned. There are no good outcomes here. But participating in the Games as a genocide is happening is profoundly wrong.”

RELATED: ‘Only athletes pay the price’: The COC president on the folly of boycotting the Beijing Olympics 

The Trudeau government has ducked the issue, saying the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees operate independently of the government, and that the choice of whether to go to the Games lies with them. The COC has been resolutely in favour of Canada attending. Doing so will help “shine a light on these Games,” says CEO David Shoemaker, who adds: “It creates a global dialogue around issues, and our participation amplifies the conversation.”

The COC says it is committed to providing opportunities for athletes to express themselves freely, and to amplify their voices where they can. And the IOC has assured them that China will abide by Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, says Shoemaker, which now allows athletes to protest so long as it’s not on the Olympic podium, at the opening or closing ceremonies, in the athletes’ village or on the field of play.

That leaves more space for dissent than you might think, including press centres and mixed zones where athletes speak to media. “Many athletes feel they can actually make more of a statement by going, and then tweeting or participating in social protests, rather than not being there at all,” says Angela Schneider, a former Olympic rower and now director of Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies. “China has a lot of power, but it doesn’t have control over an individual athlete’s Facebook account.”

MORE: At Michael Kovrig’s trial, the world had Canada’s back 

Not everyone is convinced. MacIntosh Ross, a kinesiology professor at Western who has written frequently about Olympic boycotts, says giving Canadian athletes any assurance they can speak freely against human rights abuses in China is “a terrible idea.” “The IOC can’t protect them,” he warns. “They don’t have a military. They don’t have police. And all visitors are subject to the host nation’s laws.”

Ross has instead advocated for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, as the U.S. government announced earlier this week. “U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the [People’s Republic of China] egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang,” explained White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We simply can’t do that.”

As the Canadian government is reportedly mulling over joining such a boycott, Ross says broadcasters like the CBC could also boycott showcasing the Games on TV. But he too says Canada should not be sending athletes, a sentiment that a large number of his compatriots appear to share. An August poll from Nanos Research found that a majority either supported or somewhat supported a boycott. And while critics of such actions point to the 1980 Games in Russia, which didn’t end the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ross counters with the massive, decades-long international sporting boycott of South Africa—an important tool, he says, that “put pressure on the apartheid government.”

What impression Canada’s absence from these Games would make on Beijing is an open question. Xi Jinping’s Communist regime responded with contempt to widespread Canadian outrage over the arrests of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were detained for more than 1,000 days in China, and released only after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s house arrest in Vancouver ended. Less well-known is the plight of Uighur human rights activist Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2006 while visiting Uzbekistan and sent to China, where he’s been detained ever since—reportedly without a single consular visit.

READ: Inside the fight to bring the two Michaels home from China 

One of Celil’s most vocal supporters in Canada says he’d “love to hear the athletes say they aren’t participating” in the Olympics. “The fact that we’re giving a genocidal regime the opportunity to take this very prestigious world event that is supposed to symbolize unity, dignity and peace—while they’re actively perpetrating genocide against Uighurs and Turkic Muslims—is a disgrace,” says Calgary’s Babur Ilchi, program director at the non-profit Campaign for Uyghurs.

But current Olympians willing to speak up against China have been hard to find. When Bloc MP Brunelle-Duceppe spoke with Canadian Olympic legend Jean-Luc Brassard about signing that open letter, he asked the 1994 gold medallist if he could find any active Olympic athletes willing to add their signatures. “I’m not going to find any,” Brassard recalls telling him. “I can swear to you now there’s absolutely no Canadian athlete that will sign it.”

Brassard explains: Not only do the Olympics and Paralympics mean the world to athletes, but the money they make can be tied to Olympic performance. Missing out on a medal, or making the COC look bad, can have a knock-on effect on how their sport is funded, or how they are treated after they retire from competition.

MORE: How social media impacts athletes at the Olympics 

But Brassard, who has distanced himself from the COC after resigning as chef de mission prior to the 2016 Games, was willing to sign. “I don’t think it makes any sense that we go to a country that doesn’t respect human rights,” he says. “I know relocation won’t happen. The reason I signed is because it’s sending a message to the IOC: ‘This is enough.’ ”


If it feels as though the Olympics were only recently navigating talks of a boycott of Beijing, that’s because the Chinese capital is hosting its second Olympics in less than 14 years. In the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Games, similar criticism erupted over China’s crackdown in Tibet. “We believe the Games are going to move ahead the agenda of social and human rights as far as possible—the Games are going to be a force for good,” then IOC president Jacques Rogge told Reuters in the lead-up to the event.

Still, once the cauldron was lit, those issues were mostly brushed aside as the focus shifted to sport—a phenomenon some call “sportwashing.” By the end, says Mulroney, the former ambassador, “all anybody could think about was how great the fireworks were and how amazing the stadiums were. China used those Games as an advertisement for the regime, as it always does.”

READ: China’s mission to Mars opens a new phase of the space race 

Human rights advocates argue that China’s record has only become worse since 2008, and they told the International Olympic Committee as much in the run-up to these Games. But the IOC has portrayed itself as powerless on such issues. “We have no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do,” IOC vice-president John Coates said at a press conference in October. “All we can do is award the Olympics to a country, under conditions set out in a host contract . . . and then ensure they are followed.” The IOC’s remit, he added, “is to ensure that there are no human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of the Games within the national Olympic committees or within the Olympic movement.”

In a 2020 op-ed, IOC president Thomas Bach said the Olympic Games “are not about politics,” a stance that has often raised eyebrows. Why, ask critics, would a non-political organization want—and receive—permanent observer status at the United Nations? Rob Koehler, the director general for the Montreal-based international advocacy group Global Athlete, points to the IOC’s successful effort alongside the International Ice Hockey Federation to put together a joint North and South Korean hockey team for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games: “If that’s not political, I’m not sure what is,” he says.

Global Athlete is opposed to governments refusing to send competitors to the Games,* which Koehler says make “political pawns” of the athletes, especially when they have no say in where the Olympics are held. Instead, the organization calls for the IOC to embed the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the Olympic Charter as well as the bid documents for future host nations. And he wants governments to stop tiptoeing around the IOC and national Olympic bodies when it comes to advocacy. “Who is the biggest funder of sport in Canada? The Canadian government,” Koehler says. “They should be putting pressure on the Canadian Olympic Committee to be pushing [the IOC] for reforms.”

MORE: Don’t buy the hogwash about the release of Kovrig and Spavor 

Instead, some of the most vocal protests have come from a lone Tibetan-Canadian. Released on conditions and back home in Toronto, Chemi Lhamo is calling on companies like Airbnb, Intel and Coca-Cola to drop their sponsorships; for official Olympic broadcasters like the CBC to highlight China’s human rights abuses in their coverage; and for athletes themselves to announce they will not participate.

Her surprisingly powerful voice should not be underestimated. Nor should her impeccable timing. Lhamo plans to appear in person at her next court date in Greece, which is Feb. 3—the day before the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

Editor’s note: The digital version of this story was updated to include news of the U.S. diplomatic boycott after the print version went to press.

CORRECTION, Dec. 8, 2021: This story has been updated to reflect that Global Athlete is not opposed to government boycotts.

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