The case for refusing to play along with China’s global public relations campaign is compelling
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had yet another opportunity to confront China recently by threatening to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but like he has done with the decision over whether to ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks, his government timidly refused to take a stand and passed the buck to someone else.
“The decision on whether or not to participate in Olympic and Paralympic games lies with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees, as they operate independently of the government,” a Foreign Affairs spokesperson told the National Post, essentially saying that the decision over whether to play games in a country that is committing genocide and holding our citizens hostage will be given less political consideration than whether the NHL and MLB could play games on Canadian soil during the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the COC quickly reiterated its position that Canada will absolutely be participating in the Games. “Faced with only two options — go or don’t go — our approach is to be present,” wrote David Shoemaker and Karen O’Neill, the CEOs of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee, respectively, in an op-ed published in the Globe and Mail.
Yet the case for refusing to play along with China’s global public relations campaign is compelling. Since 2017, China has detained upwards of two million Uyghur people in internment camps, where they have reportedly been subjected to brainwashing, torture, forced sterilization, systematic rape and forced labour.
But international law is much like a pack of toothless pit bulls: it has bark, but not a lot of bite. In the absence of war, which no one wants, holding a large country like China, which has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and exerts control over many other international bodies, to account must be done through more creative means. And if there’s one thing China’s Communist rulers don’t like it’s being made to look bad.
Calls for a boycott have been echoed by a coalition of 180 human rights groups, along with MPs in both Canada and the United Kingdom. It’s not the groundswell that would be needed to make any real difference, but even this appears to have got the attention of Beijing: this week, the editor of the state-backed Global Times newspaper took to Twitter to threaten sanctions against any country that dared stay home.
While it would be unlikely that an Olympic host country such as China would have the audacity to detain foreign athletes or other delegates, it seems odd that we would even give it the opportunity. Shoemaker has already stated that the COC will “talk to our athletes about the implications of what they say and of the topics that they choose to speak about,” out of fear that some of them could be arrested under China’s sweeping new national-security law that has been used to arrest critics of the regime.
There is a precedent for such a boycott. After Soviet troops marched across the Afghan border in December 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter took a firm stand and announced that the United States would not be participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow unless the Soviet Union withdrew. Canada followed suit soon after. By the time the Games started, an international coalition of 65 countries had come together to boycott the event.
In the best-case-scenario, the 2022 Games would be moved to another country. China’s propaganda machine could downplay a country like Canada not showing up, but there would be no way for the government to save face in front of its people if the whole world decided to go elsewhere. There’s not a lot of time left, so the Games would have to be held in a city that already has the facilities. If that doesn’t happen, Canada should boycott the Games entirely.