Countries involved in Beijing Olympics risk being used by Chinese government, says Uighur activist

Critics of China are calling for boycott of the Games

Protesters hold Tibetan flags during a protest against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in front of the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Critics of the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic minority groups are calling for a boycott of the Games. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via The Associated Press

Amid calls for a boycott of the 2022 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a prominent Uighur Canadian activist says countries that participate in the Games would play into the hands of the Chinese government.

“President Xi Jinping is going to use this as an opportunity to boost its authoritarian image and the current policy of genocide against Uighurs, and they are going to to use [it] as a detergent to wash out their own crimes,” said Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, in an interview with Cross Country Checkup.

“We shouldn’t be used for the Chinese government in this way.”

Calls for a boycott of the Beijing Games, which are set to begin in February 2022, are rising in protest of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, including Uighurs in Xinjiang province. China has been accused of committing genocide against the group through arbitrary detention in camps, torture, forced labour and forced sterilization.

On Monday, a substantial majority of MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of efforts to lobby the International Olympic Committee to move the Games out of China, while supporting a Conservative-led motion to declare that the Chinese government’s actions against Uighurs meets the definition for genocide.

Chinese Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu denounced the vote, saying that Canada is meddling in China’s internal affairs and accusing the government of spreading disinformation. China has also condemned the motion.

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China’s foreign ministry accused Canada of smearing and maligning his country after a majority of MPs voted in favour of a Conservative motion saying the Chinese government is carrying out a campaign of genocide against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims. 2:48

coalition of 180 human rights groups, including some based in Canada, initially called for the boycott in early February.

Tohti says a boycott would not only signal to Beijing there is international opposition toward its actions against Uighurs, but also anti-democracy efforts in Hong Kong and ongoing persecution of Tibetans.

“If we just go ahead as business as usual and participate [in] this Olympics, we are basically helping the Chinese president Xi Jinping, to glorify his authoritarian rule,” he said.

Officials, athletes against boycott

In an op-ed published by the Globe and Mail, Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) CEO David Shoemaker and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) CEO Karen O’Neill said a boycott is not the answer.

“Boycotts don’t work. They punish only the athletes prevented from going, those they were meant to compete against and those who would have been inspired by them,” the co-authors wrote.

They point to the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow as an example. Dozens of countries, including Canada, joined a U.S.-led boycott of those Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the opposition, the Games went on, however.

In an interview with Checkup, former Canadian Olympic gymnast Kris Burley agreed with the COC and CPC’s position.

“It really hurts the coaches and athletes and participants more than it actually hurts the country,” he said.

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David Shoemaker, chief executive officer and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee tells CBC News’ Heather Hiscox that boycotts “do not work” and “it’s important for us to be part of the conversation and be there” in China. 11:39

Burley, who is gay, opposed similar calls for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over laws targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens in that country. He argues that a boycott would diminish the Olympics, and athletes can advocate for policy changes in other ways.

“Canada had some major conversations after, in terms of the safe sport framework, in terms of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s One Team program, which I participate in,” he said.

“But it fundamentally elevated a conversation, at a level that was worldwide, about LGBTQ rights and the role that sport and athletes play in promoting human rights and having an opinion.”

A statement provided to Checkup by Heritage Minister Steven Guilbault’s office says that while the federal government is “deeply concerned by horrific reports of human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities” and will push for “strong international multilateral action to investigate allegations of genocide,” it recognizes the “independence” of the Olympic and Paralympic committees.

Supporting Games ‘will only embolden China’

But former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney says the abuses taking place in China are too significant to ignore.

While he’s sympathetic to concerns that athletes would lose out on their moment in the spotlight, he says Canada can no longer approach relations with China like it’s business as usual.

“For our own integrity as a country, I don’t think we can go. I just don’t see us going. I would be ashamed as a Canadian if we did,” he told Checkup.

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Mulroney adds a boycott would force others in the Chinese government’s leadership to question Xi Jinping’s “overreach” and “aggression” and says Canada’s current approach to China is ineffective and harmful.

“It not only harms the oppressed people in China, including the Uighur population, which is just a little bit smaller than the population of the province of Ontario, but it also damages us,” Mulroney said.

“What we’re trying to get away with, and what the prime minister is trying to get away with, is to sort of wink at us and say, ‘Well, we know what’s happening, but we can’t say it because China is so powerful.'”

Though the approach may seem like diplomacy today, Mulroney says it will hurt the country’s reputation down the road.

“It’s something that’s not worth doing, and … it will only embolden China to take more steps like this.”

Written by Jason Vermes with files from the Canadian Press and CBC News. Produced by Steve Howard and Menaka Raman-Wilms.