Sean Speer: Whether we boycott the Olympics or not, our relationship with China must change

There is a persistent logical inconsistency to how the West deals with China
Cai Qi, Beijing Communist Party secretary lits up the Olympic cauldron during a welcome ceremony for the Frame of Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, held at the Olympic Tower in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Andy Wong/AP Photo.

As we approach the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February 2022, there’s a growing debate about whether countries should adopt some form of boycott in light of China’s human rights record as well as its lack of accountability and transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While some conservative hawks such as U.S. Republican senator Tom Cotton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called for a full boycott, the likelier outcome is a “diplomatic boycott” which would have athletes participate in the games, but political leaders from the United States and elsewhere stay home. 

This compromise has bipartisan support in Washington from Republican senators Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz and Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine as well as various others. U.S. President Joe Biden has recently signaled that “it’s something we are considering.”

The Canadian government has yet to clarify whether it would support such a diplomatic ban. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has only indicated that his government is “engaged with like-minded countries” on the subject and that “there will be more information as to the exact posture Canada and indeed the world will take towards this issue.” 

The momentum for a diplomatic boycott (which has been described as a “middle-of-the-road” approach) seems to have essentially closed the door on a more direct action similar to the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. That decision by the Americans, Canadians, and several others to boycott the games is now generally viewed as a failure that harmed their athletes and failed to influence Soviet policy. There’s a sense that a full boycott might be counterproductive as a tactical matter.

There are two problems with the boycott debate thus far. The first is that it has generally forsaken any moral or normative considerations to these decisions. While realist thinking must guide the West’s relationship with China (as American defence and security expert Elbridge Colby persuasively argued in a recent Hub Dialogue), we shouldn’t neglect that there’s an inherent moral dimension to our actions. 

We shouldn’t neglect that there’s an inherent moral dimension to our actions. 

The Carter Administration outlined a combination of strategic and moral arguments in favour of its 1980 boycott. Then-Vice President Walter Mondale told the United States Olympic Committee in April 1980 that “a world which travels to the Moscow games devalues its condemnation [of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan] and offers its complicity to Soviet propaganda.” He went on to declare the following: 

“Your decision today is not a question of denying our Olympic team the honour they deserve; for the American people, as you know, deeply respect the sacrifice we are asking our athletes to make. It is no longer a question of whether participation in the Moscow Olympics confers legitimacy on Soviet aggression… Nor is it a question of drawing a line between sports and politics. That line the Soviets long ago erased… It is an unambiguous statement of our national resolve. It is a keystone in our call to our allies for solidarity.”

I asked former Canadian Ambassador to China, David Mulroney, about the possibility of a boycott of the upcoming Olympics in general and the moral aspects of such a decision in particular. It’s fair to say that he views the moral costs of participating in the games, and in so doing implicitly affirming the Chinese regime’s international belligerence and domestic repression, as too steep for Canada and its allies. It’s worth quoting his email response in full: 

“An Olympic Games hosted by Beijing requires a response on a level that transcends what we generally mean by ‘boycott.’ A boycott is a political gesture and as such, it is something that China would almost certainly ignore. The notion of attending games in the midst of China’s genocide in Xinjiang presents us with an unavoidable moral choice. We simply cannot participate if we are to be true to the values we profess. We can’t stop the games, but we can choose not to be complicit.

There is also, of course, a political dimension that we can’t ignore. Participating delivers a huge victory to China’s Communist Party, signifying that it is now so powerful that it can get away with anything, even genocide.”

Mulroney’s objections to participating in the Beijing Olympics are part of his broader view that Canada needs to rethink its relationship with China. Readers may disagree with his moral assessment or even the attendant benefits and costs of a new, “more limited and selective approach” vis-a-vis China but at least he’s consistent. 

That brings us to the second and arguably more significant problem with the current boycott debate. There’s a persistent logical inconsistency in many of the arguments that are being made about the Olympics and their broader application to the West’s relationship with China. Take Speaker Pelosi for instance. She recently said the following: 

“What moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide? So, honour your athletes at home. Let’s have a diplomatic boycott. … Silence on this issue is unacceptable. It enables China’s abuses.”

It’s a strong statement—indeed it’s stronger than anything the Trudeau government, which abstained on a parliamentary motion declaring China’s treatment of its Uighur minority an act of genocide, has been prepared to say—but ostensibly if it applies to the Olympics, it ought to extend more broadly to the West’s diplomatic, economic, and political relationship with China. 

If not, talk of an Olympic boycott looks like a symbolic gesture designed to mostly obscure from the general public the extent to which our current China policy is essentially a continuation of the approach that the leading U.S. realist thinker John Mearsheimer recently described as a “colossal strategic mistake.”

This reflects a cognitive dissonance among those Western policymakers who are calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics on one hand and yet who seem otherwise prepared to maintain the status quo on the other hand. There’s no point in presidents and prime ministers boycotting the games—especially since it’s quite possible that attendance is significantly curtailed due to growing pandemic concerns anyway—if their post-Olympics policies are going to revert to the so-called “Starbucks peace theory” (which stipulates that countries with Starbucks don’t go to war with each other) rather than a much-needed revamp rooted in realism. 

The key point is this: regardless of what one thinks about the West’s participation in the upcoming Olympics, we cannot let this issue become a substitute for a far more important rethink of our default assumptions in favour of comprehensive engagement with China, which Mulroney rightly characterizes as “diplomacy on auto-pilot.” It’s time instead for a new approach based on what he describes as a “clear-eyed assessment of Canadian interests.”

This won’t be achieved with empty symbolism. It will necessarily involve a series of hard choices including various domestic and foreign policy changes such as greater public investments in domestic R&D, supply chain resiliency, and national defence as well as new global alliances and institutions to thwart Chinese ambitions in Asia. 

But a new, clear-eyed China strategy requires leadership and that fundamental problem won’t be solved by whether the country’s sport minister attends the Olympics or not. 

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