When Sports and Foreign Policy Collide: Assessing the feasibility of a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics

The upcoming Winter Olympics will be hosted in Beijing, China’s capital. Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Olympics Return to the Capital

It is not wholly unusual for sports to serve as an arena for political discourse. In fact, over the last several years sports have been used to bring attention to social justice issues such as racial injustice, wealth inequality, and hunger and food insecurity. In the realm of foreign policy sports can either nurture diplomatic relations or exacerbate existing tensions; an extension of soft-power diplomacy. This article explores the feasibility and the importance of a Canadian boycott — and perhaps a wider boycott by the West — of the 2022 Winter Olympics in light of ongoing Sino-Canadian diplomatic tensions and increased scrutiny of China’s human rights record.

The upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics are set to be held in the Chinese capital of Beijing. When Beijing last hosted an Olympics event in the summer of 2008 it was an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s ruling party, to showcase China’s rapid economic development and growth which has averaged 10% GDP growth annually since the early 1990’s. For the CCP, the 2008 Summer Olympics were a coming-of-age event which demonstrated that it was possible to embrace capitalism but with Chinese characteristics.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will serve as an opportunity for China to once again demonstrate its ascendancy as the second largest economy in the world. China’s president Xi Jingping, who has held the position since 2013, intends to use the event to enhance the CCP’s image on a global stage broadcast to millions of viewers. History has shown that regimes with questionable human rights records possess a certain degree of fondness towards hosting sporting events as they can be leveraged to bolster and project their soft power influence across the globe. They [authoritarian regimes] can manufacture a welcoming, pleasant environment detached from reality as a way to deflect criticism(s) raised against them by internal and external actors.

Mr. Xi’s regime has become more conscientious about its public image as it continues to expand its global reach through various soft power mechanisms. Emboldened by its confirmed superpower status, it [the CCP] has become increasingly assertive in pursuit of its objectives, while muzzling and/or discrediting most forms of dissent raised against China’s domestic and foreign policies. China’s campaign of political repression, which will remain in the backdrop for the upcoming Winter Olympics, has also attracted the ire of domestic and foreign critics particularly in the last three years.

A Campaign of Repression

Canada’s relationship with China has remained relatively one-dimensional since relations were reopened in the 1970s as it has primarily focused on fostering bilateral trade and economic agreements. The abrupt detention of two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges of espionage has led to the sharp deterioration of Sino-Canadian relations since late 2018. Their detention was presumably a retaliatory measure for the earlier arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou, by Canadian authorities in Vancouver. Ms. Meng is currently under house arrest in Vancouver while she awaits extradition proceedings that could see her extradited to the United States to stand trial for breaching American sanctions. The US Department of Justice claims Ms. Meng committed fraud by concealing Huawei’s relationship with a company, Skycom, to circumvent and violate US sanctions against Iran.

Canada has been able to resist Chinese pressure to halt the extradition proceedings and release Ms. Meng. Nonetheless, China’s use of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as political bargaining chips should be cause for concern as it signals China’s willingness to leverage foreign nationals to achieve their political objectives: hostage diplomacy. The athletes who will form the Canadian Olympic delegation could very well be placed in a vulnerable position should Ms. Meng’s trial conclude with her extradition to the United States — a highly unfavourable outcome for the Chinese.

In June 2020, the passage of a new national security law by Hong Kong’s legislature ceded enforcement authority to Beijing — an erosion of the “one country, two systems” policy outlined in the 1997 handover agreement which guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy from the mainland. The implementation of the new legislation was met with widespread condemnation and rebuked by the international community. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swiftly followed suit with his western counterparts and scaled back Canada’s relationship with Hong Kong by suspending its bilateral extradition treaty and halting exports of strategic goods. Beijing’s encroachment in Hong Kong’s affairs has resulted in the arrest of dozens of Chinese critics and a wider crackdown on organizations or individuals that represent a potential threat to the mainland’s grasp on the semi-autonomous territory.

Elsewhere in China, the CCP has also been engaged in a campaign of repression targeted against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, located in the northwest region of the country. The Uighurs, whom are a Turkic ethnic group and predominantly Muslim, have been subject to forceful assimilation into Han society as part of the CCP’s ongoing “Chinafication” of the broader region. Their repression tactics range from intense surveillance to forced sterilization, most of which have been vehemently denied by the ruling party. The CCP has justified several of these measures on the basis that extremist elements within the Uighur minority pose a threat to national security. The plight of the Uighur Muslims has caught the attention of various actors — both state and non-state actors — and, according to a statement made at the UN General Assembly last year in October, China was criticized by thirty-nine states. Canada has designated the ongoing situation in Xinjiang as meeting the legal definition of genocide and imposed sanctions on Chinese officials alleged to be involved in the violations, which China has rebuked by placing sanctions of its own on Canadian lawmakers.

We Stand On Guard

China’s belligerent behaviour and flagrant violations of international norms should raise serious questions in foreign policy circles as to whether or not participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics would be appropriate. How feasible is a boycott of the Olympics? Can the federal government outright prohibit Canadian athletes from travelling abroad to participate in the tournament? The short answer is technically no however there is a historical precedent which can be used as a framework to guide the policy formulation process of a proposed boycott. In 1980 former Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau affirmed Canada’s commitment to the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The 1980 boycott was organized (albeit hastily) in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and concerns over its human rights record. An examination of the historical record reveals the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), the organization responsible for overseeing Canada’s involvement in the Olympics Movement, had initially opposed the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics but eventually reversed its decision and came to support it (admittedly under significant political and public pressure).

Any proposed boycott of the Winter Olympics would likely require a buy-in from the athletes as well as the COC. As a private, non-profit organization the COC maintains a clear degree of independence from the government in order to comply with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Olympic Charter. At the time of writing it has voiced its opposition to a potential boycott. A practical compromise could be the implementation of a boycott as the government’s official policy but permit athletes to participate under the IOC flag instead of the Canadian flag as Russian athletes currently are. The outcome of this compromise would result in a diminished official Canadian presence at the tournament, satisfy Canadian Olympians, and keep the COC clear of any punitive measures by the IOC as a result of political interference.

Ottawa has frequently ignored or turned a blind eye to China’s democratic shortcomings and its subversion of human rights under the pretence that China’s integration in the global economy would eventually lead to the adoption of democracy and human rights. Canada can no longer afford to sit idly by as China continues to become more assertive and belligerent. Should Canada choose to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics it would amount to a tacit acceptance of China’s behaviour and directly contradict the current government’s existing stance on the situation in Xinjiang. Canada has demonstrated in the past that it is capable of assuming leadership of global human rights initiatives to bring about meaningful change (i.e Mulroney’s lobbying against South Africa’s apartheid policies in the 1980s). Its position as a traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse makes it uniquely poised to assume leadership of this particular initiative.

With less than a year remaining until the start of the tournament a boycott would uphold Canada’s commitment to Western principles of democracy and serve as a mechanism to hold China accountable for its actions. Beyond the winter games a broader rethink — possibly a reset — of Canada’s foreign policy towards Beijing will still be necessary in order to address the long-term challenges associated with China’s growing belligerence.

Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions discussed throughout this article are solely mine and do not represent the opinion of any entity, past or present, with which I have been affiliated with. This content is not intended to marginalize any specific ethnic group or race instead it is meant to facilitate discourse about the topic.

Canadian International Council Volunteer. A washed-up policy analyst trying to give readers an amateurish perspective of foreign affairs and politics.