For Canadians, the Olympic Games, especially the Winter Olympics, are a storehouse of shared myths, national pride and international celebration filled over decades.
Some of us remember Sidney Crosby’s goal. For others it was Mario Lemieux letting that puck pass beneath him in 2002. In previous generations, it was the Winnipeg Falcons winning gold at Antwerp, Barbara Ann Scott leaping into history at St. Moritz or the four-man bobsleigh at Innsbruck.
But Olympic glory has always been wrapped in higher ideals. The excellence of individual or team performance is celebrated with passion precisely because they reflect goals we all share. For every snapshot we have of athletic excellence in our memory banks, there are larger stories of striving, training and breaking old barriers.
In short, the Olympics are about realizing the full potential that every human being has within.
The Olympic ideals reflect this. Its charter recognizes “fundamental principles of Olympism” that include the following: “blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on … social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
The charter also states, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
“Olympic glory has always been wrapped in higher ideals.”
Then there is this: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
On a common sense reading of these principles, no country that is violating humanity’s rights and freedoms on a grand scale should be hosting the games. For a state committing genocide against its own people, hosting should be inconceivable.
Yet this is precisely what is happening today.
China has interned millions simply for being proud Muslim Uyghurs.
In Xinjiang — the home province of most Uyghurs — it has been illegal in recent years to fast during Ramadan, or for anyone under 18 to enter a mosque. Islamic education is suppressed. Women are forcibly sterilized. Activists are “re-educated” in concentration camps.
Dissent is eliminated. Media freedom is non-existent.
A massive effort is underway to extinguish Uyghur culture, identity, language and religion, using the same tactics Chinese authorities employed for decades in Tibet, with devastating effect.
This genocide against minorities in China today is a 21st-century successor to Stalin’s policy of genocide against Belarusian, Chechen, Crimean Tatar, Estonian, Finnish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Tatar, Ukrainian and many other ethnic identities across the Soviet Union.
Today’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is repeating these outrages by deploying modern surveillance and repressive practices against ethnic and religious minorities across China on a mind-boggling scale. They are working to eliminate organized religion. In the past year, they have dismantled much of Hong Kong’s legacy of democracy and the rule of law. They have shut down the work of human rights lawyers, taken hostages as leverage and rolled back the space that had emerged for true entrepreneurship and independent corporate governance.
Behind the Great Firewall of China, they have suspended free speech.
Through companies like Huawei, which is obliged to do the bidding of the Ministry of State Security and the chillingly named United Front Work Department, the long arm of CCP influence and censorship works to quell criticism of its totalitarian agenda worldwide.
It has stymied a full investigation of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, which originated in the city of Wuhan. This city is also the host of the Wuhan Virology Institute, China’s first-ever biosafety level 4 laboratory, which just happens to specialize in the study of coronaviruses.
What does this malign effort look like on the ground — in the west of China, or in Canada itself?
My first visit to China began in 2005 at the Khunjerab Pass, where the Karakoram Highway leaves Pakistan to enter China’s Xinjiang province at 4,693 metres. The contrast could not have been more striking.
At magical sites like Hunza and Shigar in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, heritage buildings erected by ethnic and religious minorities, including a Hindu maharaja, were being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Meanwhile, at exactly the same time in China, whole neighbourhoods of traditional Uyghur houses — part of a vital cultural legacy underpinning the fabric of the Silk Road between China and Central Asia — were being demolished in Kashgar and other cities.
You could see the despair written on faces. Men in historic mosques were silent and expressionless, as if paralyzed by the wrenching trauma of their predicament.
On almost every street corner official propaganda urged people to “build a harmonious society in Xinjiang,” painting a false picture of inter-ethnic harmony in the language of official doublespeak, backed by fear and street-level repression.
For too long the world looked away from these sad scenes, blinded by the imperatives of the U.S. “war on terror,” which China’s political commissars eagerly exploited.
Even the states most eager to take action against Islamophobia elsewhere in the world — notably Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — have been eerily mute as one of the world’s greatest Islamic civilizations is silently strangled.
China puts a lot of effort into cultivating relations with foreign politicians and prominent citizens, including in Canada. It sponsors receptions, organizes events, pays for junkets to China and donates to public works projects, sometimes with the help of third parties. Retired Canadian politicians often land on the boards of organizations that do or promote business in China. Perhaps as a result of these efforts, there are politicians, academics and businesspeople all over Canada who parrot official CCP talking points.
Canada’s Parliament recently voted to label China’s persecution of Uyghurs a genocide. The motion passed unanimously, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most of his cabinet didn’t show up to vote — instead leaving Foreign Minister Marc Garneau to abstain on behalf of the government.
Other Canadian politicians aren’t afraid to voice their support for closer ties with China. “It’s not our role to go in and tell someone else they’re wrong. Our role is to go in and work with them and learn,” Nova Scotia’s outgoing premier Stephen McNeil told the Canada China Business Council earlier this year. “I’m proud to be Canadian, but Chinese people are proud to be Chinese, and they have a way of doing things. Let’s go learn. Let’s teach each other. And let us grow economic ties.”
Less visible are Canadians with family members in Hong Kong and across China who endure threats, intimidation and worse whenever the Ministry of State Security deems they have stepped out of line.
There are those who will claim, vacuously, that China’s actions in Xinjiang do not warrant designation as a genocide because no mass executions have taken place.
The Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which is precisely the goal of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Others, including David Shoemaker, the current CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, have claimed, most implausibly, that “boycotts don’t work.”
Shoemaker spent seven years as CEO of NBA China which, according to Shoemaker’s official biography, “surged to new heights with over 640 million people watching NBA programming in China.” To achieve this result, the NBA had to abase itself before CCP ideologues after a single tweet by an NBA team manager who dared to show support for democracy in Hong Kong.
By failing to show moral leadership at this crucial juncture, Shoemaker and those who share his views are betraying both the Olympic movement and people around the world, particularly in China, who suffer every time dictators are needlessly empowered to do their worst.
Shoemaker also misunderstands history. The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics dealt a major blow to the prestige of the Soviet regime. Sixty-five countries stayed away — most as direct result of the boycott.
Only three-and-a-half weeks after the hollow Moscow Olympic Games closed, Poland’s ‘Solidarity’ movement was founded.
Within five years, the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, who would ultimately help end the Cold War, was at the apex of the Soviet system.
By 1988, Soviet troops were leaving Afghanistan. After the Pan-European Picnic, an August 1989 demonstration on the Austria-Hungary border, the Warsaw Pact became a dead letter. The Berlin Wall fell and, by 1991, the Soviet Union itself was gone.
These are not distant analogies from another era. It is precisely because of the Soviet Union’s epic and unexpected demise that Chinese President Xi Jinping is pulling out all the stops to bring everyone to his Winter Olympics.
Since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi has scaled up a more brutal, unsparing approach to totalitarian repression.
The plight of Hong Kong, religious minorities, Tibet and Xinjiang are only part of the picture. In cracking down on dissent across his party and his country, Xi has a single goal in mind: he wants to ensure the People’s Republic of China does not go the way of the Soviet Union. He’s admitted as much himself.
In December 2012, Xi addressed a group of “insiders” in Guangdong province.
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” Xi said, according to a summary of his comments that circulated among Chinese officials and was reported by the New York Times.
“Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone. In the end, nobody was a real man. Nobody came out to resist.”
In other words, he is determined not to make the mistakes he believes Soviet leaders made — by not “fighting for” the system that disintegrated in 1991. For Xi, being a “real man” means fighting tooth and nail, by all available means, to uphold and strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly hold on power.
In this quest to hold a totalitarian juggernaut together, Xi’s main ally, unsurprisingly, is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
For Putin, reviving “Soviet greatness” means invading neighbouring countries, assassinating — allegedly — critics and opponents, making the nightly news an anti-American hate-fest and undermining democracy worldwide with corruption, fraud and extreme polarization.
Xi’s challenge is slightly different.
To succeed, he needs to demonstrate domestically that there is no alternative to his increasingly hard-edged rule. He needs to show that, despite all the shortcomings of the pollution, poor public services and repression that Chinese citizens see all around them, China enjoys the world’s respect and can squelch dissenting voices.
For Xi, the 2022 Olympic Games, far from being a showcase divorced from politics, are in fact a top political priority. It is no accident that Beijing’s selection to host the 2008 Summer Games was decided in Moscow in 2003, when the distant runner-up was Toronto.
At the time, long before Xi’s rise, many had reason to hope that not only democracy in Hong Kong would flourish, but that China would embrace greater freedoms and justice reforms.
It didn’t happen.
In fact, since 2011, Putin and Xi have engaged in a coordinated effort to strengthen their dictatorships and weaken democracies worldwide.
Within days of the end of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Over the ensuing seven years, Xi has scaled up repression in Xinjiang, dismantled democracy in Hong Kong, tightened information controls and abandoned any pretence of diplomatic restraint or judicial independence.
For Canada (and other countries), this now means every exchange we have with China in trade, education, culture or other fields is overshadowed by the spectre of two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — jailed under Xi’s authority in a bid to blackmail us into upending our own justice system.
Do we really want the Olympic Games, the repository of some of humanity’s highest ideals, to be hosted by “wolf warriors” — as China’s belligerent politicians and diplomats are sometimes described — who enthusiastically tell anyone who believes in democracy, international law or due process to ‘get stuffed’?
Unfortunately, we have been here before.
In our current run-up to the Winter Games of 2022, there is an eerie echo of another chapter in Olympic history.
In that infamous era, there were also prominent voices around the world calling for an Olympic boycott. There were warnings of rising totalitarianism, dissent crushed and further violence to come. These failed to save the Olympic movement from its darkest hour.
Nazi Germany hosted both the Winter and Summer Olympics in 1936, at a time when, although the Holocaust had not yet begun, Hitler’s anti-Semitism and militarism were fully visible.
With most of the world’s complicity, Leni Riefenstahl and others turned those 1936 Games into a chilling public relations victory for the Nazi regime, with Jesse Owens congratulated by Hitler and snubbed by his own president. Are we prepared to let that happen again?
There is only one lesson to draw: totalitarian states have no place hosting Olympic Games.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, most of the world acted in unison. Even the People’s Republic of China joined the 1980 boycott.
Today the context is different. The financial stakes with China are higher — making global brands and leading fund managers the voices of complacency in 2021, with their calls for “staying the course” and avoiding confrontation with China.
Yet a reckoning with the People’s Republic is long overdue.
Without it, the global economy risks becoming more volatile and less resilient. Avoiding a reckoning with China means ignoring human rights abuses committed on an industrial scale. It means turning a blind eye to genocide and giving a propaganda coup to its perpetrators. It tells China’s democratic activists and human rights defenders that their lives don’t matter to us.
Shoemaker and others will argue that the Olympics are for athletes — merely an exercise in sporting excellence from which politics is excluded. They are wrong.
The modern Olympiad that began in the 1890s was rooted in a Greek national revival in the 1820s and 1830s that shook off imperial shackles, inspiring a generation to pursue freedom anew across Europe and beyond.
Whatever the desperate assertions of today’s apologists for China’s litany of misdeeds, the Olympic Games have always been a “political institution.” As the English poet Gilbert West noted as long ago as 1753, even the ancient games required participating states to refrain from war “under the Penalty of being refused the Liberty of performing their Sacrifices to Jupiter at Olympia, upon that his solemn Festival.”
China is now at war with its own people. It has also been at war diplomatically with most of the outside world for several years, just as Hitler was in 1936.
To make this a year of hope for humanity and a year of recommitment to democracy — fuelled by the courage of demonstrators from Minsk to Yangon, from Quetta to Khabarovsk — we must avoid repeating the cardinal error that blighted the Olympic record last century.
Almost every Canadian, as well as strong majorities in most democracies, understands that a major re-think of our relations with China is urgently needed. In several countries it is underway. Most support this shift and want to see the world’s leading democracies take a common approach to curbing Chinese belligerence and calling out China’s massive human rights abuses, including the current genocide against the Uyghur people.
After the Tiananmen massacre, we lost three decades during which hopes for democracy in China were tragically dashed. In recent years, the intensity of CCP repression at home and belligerence abroad has become unacceptable.
We need a new approach to China, one that unites us as allies and partners with dozens of other countries committed to basic democratic freedoms, human rights and the rule of law. These are still the organizing principles for beneficial trade and investment, as well as enduring international peace and security.
There is no better way to signal a new approach than by taking a stand — to ensure “never again” really does mean never again.
Time is short. We need to put false hopes aside and be honest about what we value most.
There is only one way to burnish our Olympic ideals, to ensure past moments on ice and snow are treasured in the future, while speaking up for the human dignity now under siege in Xinjiang and elsewhere in Xi’s China.
Canada and all who cherish human rights and the Olympic dream must boycott Beijing 2022.
The Canadian International Council is co-hosting a virtual town hall with Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole on March 16. Please register and submit a question you would like O’Toole to answer here.