- On 20th July 2021 in Parliament, Lisa Nandy MP, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, asked Dominic Raab MP, the Foreign Secretary, if Her Majesty’s (HM) Government would consider boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The games, being held in Beijing, are becoming increasingly divisive, as the host nation – the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ruled by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – is perpetuating violence against Uyghur Muslims and undermining the civil rights of the citizens of Hong Kong. Although the Labour Party has not called for a ‘sporting’ boycott of the games, it does believe a diplomatic boycott to be vital.
- The history of boycotting the Olympic Games outright is complex; the two occasions where a boycott occurred related to tensions with the Soivet Union during the Cold War. The 1980 Summer Olympics, hosted in Moscow, saw many democratic anti-Comintern nations, and also the PRC, boycott the games. This was followed in 1984 by a Comintern boycott of the games hosted in the United States (US). As of yet, no country has boycotted the Winter Olympics – perhaps due to its smaller size and significance.
- The practice of a diplomatic boycott is more complex: it can range from reducing the significance of those attending to a complete abstention by political and diplomatic figures. A diplomatic boycott allows athletes to exercise their own judgment as to whether they attend, rather than mandating athletes to abandon chances of Olympic glory. The 1980 Olympics set an excellent precedent for what ought to happen: although British athletes did compete, they did so under the Olympic flag and in all medal ceremonies, the Olympic hymn replaced the British national anthem. This acted as a constant reminder to the viewing audience that Britain condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If this were repeated in Beijing, the many medals won by UK Olympians would serve to remind viewers in the PRC and around the world that Britain condemns the crimes committed by the CCP.
- On the 9th July 2021, the European Union’s (EU) parliament voted for a non-binding resolution on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. This non-binding resolution was overwhelmingly supported by MEPs with 578 votes in favour and only 29 in opposition. A similar non-binding debate was held in the UK’s House of Commons on the 15th July, the debate having been called by Tim Loughton MP. He is currently unable to visit the PRC as he has been banned from the country by the CCP for condemning its abuses against Uyghurs and Hong Kongers.
- It is of course right that the UK should adopt a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games in 2022; to do otherwise would be to hand the CCP’s leadership a public relations victory. Pictures of members of the Royal Family and British ministers would adorn the pages of CCP propaganda mouthpieces and Hong Kong newspapers, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of citizens reeling from the CCP’s abuses of the National Security Law.
- Loughton made clear his view behind the CCP’s motives for hosting these games: ‘The Chinese propaganda machine is being ratcheted up for this historic event, which will make the Chinese capital the first city to host both a summer and winter Olympic games.’ Mr Loughton is correct, the CCP wishes to use the Winter Olympics to position itself, domestically and internationally, as a positive cultural power. A UK diplomatic boycott would undermine this position, and leave Beijing in no doubt that its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have consequences. Loughton goes further and suggests that the UK has a legal obligation to boycott under the Genocide Convention.
- Although within the PRC the effects of a UK diplomatic boycott would be minimal, as the CCP-controlled media would brush it aside and create excuses, the global effect could be striking. It would show a willingness by the UK to rebuke the PRC publicly, and would make clear that HM Government does not feel threatened by CCP threats. In any case, the threat of reprisals from the CCP is often bluff and any actual CCP action would have minimal effect on the UK. Similarly, a like-for-like reprisal would be a long time coming; Britain is not due to host any major international sporting events for some time, and a boycott of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow during November 2021 would be an extreme escalation, not least because the PRC is itself heavily challenged by environmental degradation.
- Fundamentally the UK should impose a diplomatic boycott on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. HM Government has a moral, political and potentially legal duty to punish the CCP for human rights abuses and genocidal actions.
John Dobson is Policy Relations and Events Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy
This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.