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Human Rights, Economic Ties Drive Decisions to Boycott – or Not – 2022 Olympics

Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing.
Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing.

As much as China and the International Olympic Committee have pushed for the Olympic Games to be a neutral event, political controversy and boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics started months before Friday’s opening ceremonies.

But not everyone’s enmeshed in politics.

Boycott supporters, including human rights groups, are calling out Beijing over perceived strong-arm tactics toward Taiwan, anti-Beijing protesters in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and the largely Muslim Uyghur population in the Chinese Xinjiang region.

Yet analysts say many developing countries value their economic ties with China, political divides notwithstanding, so they sent officials as well as athletes to stay on Beijing’s good side.

Australia has avoided sending government officials to the Feb. 4-20 Games over its belief that China is abusing human rights and refusing to hold talks on trade and diplomatic disputes. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that decision in early December, becoming one of the dozen-plus countries that announced diplomatic boycotts.

Most other countries with diplomatic boycotts are like Australia – with a record of concerns about human rights in China and enough wealth to get past any economic reprisals. The United States announced its diplomatic boycott in December. Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and some 10 European countries have followed. Although government officials will not be attending, these nations still let their athletes compete in the Winter Games.

“In Europe, I think it’s very important and here in the United States and in Australia, there are populations that really do care about human rights,” said Scott Harold, a Washington-based senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation research group. “This is not just a stick to beat China or an attempt to contain China’s rise. It’s really in part about living the values that you say guide your polity.”

Six Summer or Winter Olympiads over the event’s more than 100-year history have weathered boycotts.

Officials in Beijing see diplomatic boycotts as an inappropriate mix of sports and politics. They vowed reprisal against the United States in December.

The U.S. diplomatic boycott of its Games “seriously violated the principle of the political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and that the U.S. will pay a price for it," state-run China Daily reported.

China has denied accusations of human rights abuses and described the reasons for some U.S. lawmakers’ call for a diplomatic boycott as “full of lies and false information” that is “based on ideology and political prejudice” according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua News Agency.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Economic, regional ties

Chinese economic clout stops some governments from boycotting, said James Gomez, regional director of the Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank. Countries throughout the developing world, especially in Asia and Africa, look to China’s $15.6 trillion economy as an irreplaceable market for exports and a source of direct investment.

“China is there, it’s big, so let’s just play nice even if they may not mean it because in the play of diplomacy everybody does the doublespeak,” Gomez said. “So, even if they may be aligned politically in a different way, they will still not publicly distance themselves from China.”

The Philippines, which has its own list of problems with China, decided to send three officials to the Games with its single athlete, alpine skier Asa Miller.

Filipinos had “hardly any public discussion about participating or not” in the Games this month, said Herman Kraft, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Beijing and Manila have sparred with occasional ship standoffs since 2012 for control over the resource-rich South China Sea between them.

“There might be some concern about reprisals, but I think it’s more of a preemptive thing in the sense that they’re not too interested in using the Olympics as a forum or an arena where relations with China might actually be made at risk,” Kraft said.

Other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and Vietnam, also vie with China over maritime sovereignty, but Malaysia has praised China for hosting the Olympics. Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc sent a letter to Chinese officials wishing them a successful Winter Olympics, according to Vietnamese state media, Nhân Dân.

A “fear of further sanctions” may explain South Korea’s unwillingness to boycott the Games, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a Jan. 13 study. China sanctioned South Korea after its deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in 2016, the study says, costing tourism alone $15.7 billion.

Beijing kicked off the Olympics on Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach appearing at an opening ceremony in the National Stadium.