Winter Olympics: threat of boycotts clouds China's 'joyful rendezvous' in the snow

Ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing and neighbouring cities, China is working overtime to make sure the event is a success.

Beijing has budgeted $3.1bn for repurposing and building new venues and spent an additional $8.2bn yuan on a high speed rail connecting Beijing with another host city Zhangjiakou.

Under a plan to get the population excited about the event, at least 2,000 schools have been instructed to include winter sports in their curriculum by the end of the year and a giant clock in Beijing counts down the time left before the Games begin. The official slogan is: “Joyful rendezvous upon pure ice and snow”.

But that joyful rendezvous is increasingly under threat as calls for a boycott of the event grow louder. Earlier this month UK foreign minister Dominic Raab said his country would not rule out a boycott, adding that there comes a point when it is “not possible” to “separate sport from diplomacy and politics.”

Last month more than 160 human rights groups sent a letter to the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, calling for the Games to be moved from China on the basis of rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia. Hong Kong activists such as Joshua Wong are lobbying countries like Canada, a key contender in the Winter Games, to boycott the occasion.

A US senator from Florida, Rick Scott, has called on the IOC to stand up to Beijing the way it did when the committee banned apartheid South Africa from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. In August, Ian Duncan Smith, a member of the UK’s Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China with politicians from 16 countries and representatives from the European Parliament, called on the UK government to boycott the Olympics, describing China as “dictatorial, aggressive [and] intolerant”.

For Beijing, which would be the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, the 2022 Olympics represent a new level of prestige on the international stage – an additional step up from the 2008 event that marked China’s entrance onto the world stage as a major economy. Fewer countries can afford to effectively compete or host the event.

“For China the 2008 Summer Olympics was their coming-out party,” said Jung Woo Lee, a lecturer in sports and leisure policy at the University of Edinburgh. “The 2022 Winter Olympics is likely to be a cultural spectacle which declares that China is not only an economic powerhouse but also a magnet of attractive global culture and high-tech industry,” he said.

The exclusivity of the Winter Games makes a potential boycott all the more threatening. Ahead of the 2008 Olympics similar calls were made, citing China’s suppression of Tibet and other abuses. A boycott never materialised but the impact would likely have been minimal, observers say.

“Too many countries would still have taken part in 2008,” said Alan Bairner, a professor of sport and social theory at Loughborough University. “Unlike the Summer Games which involve so many countries that are economically dependent on China, the big Winter Olympics players are less so and if they decide boycott there won’t be much left.”

Diplomatic tensions

The threat of boycott comes as relations between China and some of the main players in the Winter Olympics are at their worst point in decades. China has held two Canadians in detention for almost two years in what many believe to be retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, at the request of the US.

A boycott appears more likely against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. Beijing’s ties with other countries from the US to Australia and the UK, struggling to contain the virus that some blame Beijing for allowing to spread, have deteriorated.

Yet Beijing has so far shrugged off the protests. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last month: “By linking the so-called human rights issue with the Winter Olympics in an attempt to pressure China, certain organisations have made the mistake of politicising sporting events.”

But observers say momentum is building. Distrust of China is stronger than before the 2008 Olympics, an event that some hoped would encourage the fast-developing country to liberalise the way that the 1988 Games led to political reform and the gradual introduction of democracy in South Korea, then under a military dictatorship.

“Up until the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China had been gradually becoming freer in many aspects of the civil society, so the idea of pushing for China to liberalise through giving it the opportunity to host Olympic games was an idea that in many people’s mind had genuine potential,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“This approach has not worked. Human rights abuses since Xi Jinping came to power have gone substantially worse and China is not responding to condemnations and calls for change,” she said. “All of these have made boycotting an approach that is gaining more and more traction.”

Critics and human rights advocates say that one day the international community will regret awarding the event to Beijing whose policies of mass internment and suppression of Muslim minorities have been revealed over the last few years to increasing alarm.

Jules Boykoff, professor in the department of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon, noted comparisons to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when Hitler used the event to showcase Nazi propaganda.

He said: “In a way one could argue that there were fewer unknowns about China in 2015 when the IOC picked Beijing to host the 2022 Olympics than when the IOC chose Berlin to host the 1936 Olympics.”