America’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, though practically a virtually pointless protest, will only inspire China to make the 2022 Winter Olympics an even bigger success.
To the surprise of very few people, the United States on Monday evening announced a “diplomatic boycott” of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. This means that while athletes can still compete and sponsors can still participate, the US will send no official representatives to the event to take a stand against what the White House described as “China’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity”. It would be equally unsurprising if those countries allied to the US, particularly those in the ‘Anglosphere’ decide to follow. Australia is probably a cast-iron guarantee. As I noted last week, the US has been coordinating a campaign of releasing Xinjiang-related material across this timeframe in order to manufacture consent and cast a negative shadow over the event.
But one might question, does it really matter? It’s a half-baked effort and, in reality, it’s all talk. China has vowed to take unspecified “countermeasures”– but that itself could be accused of being an overreaction. Why, after all, should Beijing care if Joe Biden doesn’t send his wife? If anything, the move shows the US, and whosoever joins them, aren’t really “taking a stand” because they aren’t prepared to put their money where their mouth is and make serious sacrifices on behalf of something they are telling the world is so horrific and morally unacceptable.
Genocide is ongoing, so they tell us, but not seemingly bad enough to pull out athletes or force sponsors to U-turn, right? This only displays the disingenuous nature of the initiative and the reality that it is not based on moral concerns at all, just opportunism in the eagerness to score points against Beijing. Over 6500 people are alleged to have died in forced labour conditions in Qatar in preparation for the FIFA World Cup, also next year. Where is the international outcry for that? Where are the same politicians demanding it? The silence tells you all you need to know.
But ultimately it isn’t so much the hypocrisy which annoys Beijing, but in its own perspective the fact that the attempt to boycott it, even symbolically, is representative of how the US does not see China as an “equal” in international social status, and believes accordingly that China’s system, development and achievements are contingent upon their “approval.” Why is it such a big deal though? And of such considerable political stakes? The Olympics is without a doubt the most prestigious event in global sport, and always one of the biggest events of the year in which it is held. It is something that embodies the spirit and heritage of humanity, hence the ancient Greeks held it in honour of the gods.
As a result, it has been naturally seen as a symbol of “status” for a country to hold the events. When Beijing first hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, it was seen as a huge event for China and heralded in turn as a showcasing of China’s own rise, success and growing international status. It was “their moment.” However, that also took place during a time whereby the US and the West at large were open to more engagement with Beijing. Believing that China was “changing” into their image, they gave it their tacit approval.
Now the new consensus on China is driven by the reality that the country is not in fact changing to what they hoped it to be, and for China to develop on its own ideological terms and in its own way has been deemed no longer acceptable. In turn, the US has sought to promote an international public opinion war against Beijing, largely done through the weaponization of human rights abuses, and does not want it to procure prestige, status or “acceptance” for what it is from such events. By initiating a diplomatic boycott and likely compelling others to do the same, the US believes withholding its “approval” is a symbolic attempt to try and alienate, isolate and humiliate China, illustrating their status as an inferior who can only truly exist, thrive and succeed on the path America seeks to set for it.
It is of course a mindset which its advocates repeatedly draw inspiration from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, hence why China repeatedly denounces it as a “Cold War mentality.” It also implies that the Olympics as a whole is only of worth if the US and its allies approve of it. Hence the discourse is about how China is seemingly disgraced, and not how the US is isolating itself or clowning around. This is why Beijing is angry; it is not being treated as an equal and is subjected to this moralistic retribution, as it were in times of old. At the bottom of all this is a battle for the prestige and geopolitical status. China is trying to be more confident that it is not hinging upon “western approval” to move forwards, however it nonetheless remains very conscious of American attempts to humiliate it.
This means Beijing will not so much brush it off saying “well, we don’t want you anyway!” but will seek to make up for its loss of face by throwing everything at the event being a success. It has a lot of points to prove. How will it do this? First of all, it is well-noted that Russia’s Vladimir Putin will attend the event. China will look for other world leaders to do so as well and actively lobby for delegates through diplomatic channels, most likely outside the West, in order to demonstrate the point that it does not live according to their “approval.” We should expect Imran Khan of Pakistan to be invited too, as well as leaders from Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Its media is likewise likely to go full throttle on promoting it as much as possible in an attempt to set the narrative, especially because the western media will certainly be out to spoil the party.
The very essence of the Olympics is competition, but now another one is at play, off the snow and ice: the competition between the US and China for global prestige. China seeks to display the event, with Beijing being the only city to host both the summer and winter Olympics, as a vindication of their rapid development, rise in global stature, and national achievements. The US, on the other hand, now sees sabotaging this effort as instrumental in part of a broader campaign to try and thwart China’s rise, seeking to set international norms, rules, and standards in line with what Washington wants Beijing to submit to.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al-Ghadeer’s editorial stance.
By: Tom Fowdy, a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.