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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26

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Peng Shuai Could the west really boycott the Winter Olympics?

Spotlight Asia Pacific

By Patrick Wintour PATRICK WINTOUR IS THE GUARDIAN’S DIPLOMATIC EDITOR

Boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics in February may seem a simple, symbolic diplomatic gesture – when put alongside the allegations of labour camps in Xinjiang province and the apparent sexual exploitation of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai – but such is the contemporary economic power of China that the step will only be taken after much agonising. The threats and economic boycotts that Australia, Canada and more recently Lithuania have suffered at the hands of the Chinese for challenging Beijing’s authority are not experiences other countries will want to copy lightly. The west has always argued that its secret weapon against China is the strength of its alliances. China, by contrast, has no friends. So if a boycott is to happen – by, for instance, withdrawing ambassadors, royalty and ministers from the ceremonial events – countries will want to know that the big players in the G7 economies are signed up. An incoherent response will only underline the west’s lack of resolve. At the moment, Joe Biden, the US president, has said he is considering a boycott. That seemed surprising because, after his three-hour phone call with President Xi last week, the short-term trajectory of US relations with China seemed to be towards greater contact, albeit guarded. Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific director at the national security council, emphasised establishing relations with Beijing, particularly between the two presidents. With issues such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the independence of Taiwan, suppression in Hong Kong, or China’s unexpected advance in hypersonic nuclear missiles, it may seem unwise to offend Beijing over relatively trivial issues such as the number of US dignitaries that go to watch John Shuster competing to retain his gold for US curling in 2018. These slights are taken very seriously in nationalist China – and Beijing is determined to retaliate if it feels it has been treated unfairly. Since it regards the Olympic Games as “a rite of passage for China as a mature major power”, it has been working the diplomatic circuit successfully to gain support. In the wake of the Peng Shuai affair, there is a renewed US political constituency, led by Republican figures such as Mike Pompeo and Ted Cruz, that favours a complete boycott by sports stars, not just officials. It is hard for the Democrat administration to declare a genocide under way in Xinjiang, and then say: “Let the games commence.” What may drive governments is the opinions of star athletes themselves, with their huge social media followings and relative immunity from threats. So long as the issue is one of solidarity with a fellow athlete, the stars will push sports diplomacy in the direction of confrontation with China. That will put pressure on the commercial sponsors, although few at this stage are likely to withdraw. The fear of China’s power in the commercial sector was underscored by a recent Axios report revealing the Marriott hotel in Prague had turned down a chance to host the Uyghur World Conference, allegedly for fear of offending the Chinese. The UK, with one economic engine gone missing due to Brexit, is not keen to lose the other through Chexit, at least until other markets have been established in south-east Asia. Boris Johnson’s natural stance is to oppose sports boycotts. The UK government has committed to nothing. Similarly, it said an urgent review started on 12 January of export controls as they applied specifically to Xinjiang had not yet finished its “urgent work”. Johnson will want to pick his fights with China, and despite a vociferous backbench lobbying group and a foreign secretary – Liz Truss – inclined to rattle cages, it would be a surprise if he is first to propose a substantial boycott.

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