The Beijing Winter Olympic Games are only weeks away and China is being forced to take a defensive stand due to diplomatic boycotts from the US, Britain, Australia and other Western countries. The Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and human rights advocates and individuals who dared to speak out against the government has led Western governments to announce a boycott for months. The pressure escalated after the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who leveled sexual harassment allegations against a former top Politburo official.
Businesses still need China
Recent strategies adopted by the government suggest that there are other avenues for Beijing to counter critics of its policies. Take for example economic pressure. In a virtual meeting in late November between China’s deputy foreign minister, Zi Feng, and US business lobby groups, Zi called on American businesses to talk to the US government for China. The message was clear – Beijing hopes the business community will do its part to continue its access to China’s lucrative market. As Xie put it, if relations between the two countries deteriorate, the business community ‘cannot keep quiet’.
For a long time this is the price the business community has been forced to pay in order to gain a foothold in China – complying with the demands of the government. Remember 2019, when former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The NBA initially issued a statement that was criticized by US politicians for prioritizing financial interests over human rights. (The league later clarified that it was in favor of ‘freedom of expression’.)
As a result, the NBA lost millions of dollars. NBA games have not been on Chinese state television since this incident. Access to the lucrative Chinese market still matters immensely. It is this advantage that the Chinese government can still use against foreign interests. It says much that major Olympic sponsors have remained silent on China’s human rights situation, while governments have announced diplomatic boycotts.
China does not care about the West
Then the question arises whether China still needs the West or cares about what the West thinks of it. China has described the diplomatic boycott as “an obvious political provocation and a serious disgrace to the 1.4 billion Chinese people”. But it has also pointed to the 173 UN member states that have signed a UN Olympic ceasefire to ensure that conflicts do not disrupt the Games.
Beijing is angered by the insults it has received from Washington and others, but is insisting it still has widespread international support for the Winter Olympics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has ‘with pleasure’ an invitation to attend the opening ceremony. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will also be involved and of course there will be others.
China’s model of development has long drawn praise from African countries, particularly as state-directed capitalism. By hosting its second Olympics in less than 20 years, China is sending a message to developing countries that its development model works. By giving China the right to host the Games, the IOC is also showing the world that it doesn’t mind being closely aligned with China’s authoritarian governments, and more than that it is legitimizing them. The EU’s laxity on its response to the boycott has also strengthened Beijing’s position and provided an opportunity to take advantage of the West’s inconsistent stance on the matter.
Sports don’t bring political change
There was great hope that the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics would turn China for the better – the government would become more accountable and more respectful of human rights. However, violent protests against China’s repressive policies took place in Tibet and spread around the world. About 30 Tibetans were imprisoned, some for life. The 2008 Olympics exposed the international community’s misconception that sports can bring about political change.
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