How the West can avoid Beijing's propaganda trap

6 March 2021

12:27 AM

6 March 2021

12:27 AM

This time next year the Winter Olympics will have drawn to a close. Beijing will have become the first city to have hosted both the summer and winter games. The Chinese Communist party’s (CCP) central propaganda department will have worked to ensure a gold medal performance in harnessing sport to bolster the party’s image (before we get too self-righteous about that, remember that all hosts use the games to boost soft power).

Or maybe not. A year out, global momentum is gathering for an Olympic boycott in reaction to the genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has calledon the Biden administration to pull the US out of the games to send a message to Beijing. Meanwhile a petition is circulating in Canada to pressure the International Olympic Committee into moving the games to Vancouver.

But last week the UK’s Prime Minister ruled out a boycott. I agree that boycotting the ancient event is a bad idea — and not just because, like the PM, I studied classics at university. As it happens, history is on the side of the athletes. In ancient Greece, the Olympic games were marked by a truce. Even in times of war, arms were laid down so that athletes and spectators could attend unthreatened. That is why in modern times a dove is released, to symbolise that peace. The games over, the poems extolling the winners having floated off into the ether, Greeks would pick up their swords and shields and once more set about the important business of killing each other.

But nostalgia and a classical education do not constitute a solid base for policy to combat genocide, concentration camps and forced labour. Mr Johnson claimed that the UK is ‘leading international action in the UN to hold China to account, and we will continue to work with the US, friends and partners around the world to do just that.’ Condemnation in the UN is helpful, but China will veto any action. And how exactly is the British government working with other countries, as the PM claims?

Making athletes take the brunt of any measures is not only unfair on them but is likely to be ineffective. Moreover competing in Beijing sends the message that we want peace and that we do not hold the broad mass of Chinese people responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity. Rather we hold the Chinese Communist party responsible — not all 92 million members, but perhaps those above the rank of office director (tingji) who number between 40,000 to 60,000 and who make and implement policy.

This distinction between the Chinese people and the CCP leadership is important — and it is hated by the party, which loves nothing better than to conflate the two and thereby to characterise an attack on itself as a racist assault on Chinese generally.

We need to be fair to the athletes and realistic and effective in our response to the games. Mr. Johnson can encourage ‘the US, friends and partners around the world’ to use the Olympics not just to condemn genocide but also to inflict a cost on the CCP. No foreign leader or dignitary should attend, just as foreign leaders passed on Xi Jinping’s 2015 military parade in Tiananmen celebrating 70 years since victory over Japan at the end of world war two.

Fans and tourists should stay away. Foreign media should not broadcast in their own countries the opening and closing ceremonies. When it comes to the games themselves, media coverage should concentrate only on the events, with no ‘interest pieces’ about the background to the games or China generally.

Our companies should neither advertise nor sponsor these games; those which do should be shamed. Athletes and team officials attending should comment solely on the events and ensure that nothing they say or do can be used by the propaganda department. They should be briefed clearly on the treatment of Uyghurs and the reasons for restraint, and they should be encouraged to befriend fellow athletes and explain their team’s behaviour in light of the Xinjiang atrocities.

These and other measures would achieve the aim of negating any propaganda gain for a regime bent on genocide. It would also inflict a considerable financial loss on the Beijing exchequer. Holding a winter Olympic games is not cheap: Sochi cost $51 billion (although much of it went into the pockets of Putin cronies) and Pyeongchang $12.9 billion. To misquote General Secretary Xi Jinping, this is ‘lose-lose’.

The editor of the Global Times, the CCP’s attack dog, has threatened that any country boycotting the Beijing Olympics will be hit by economic sanctions. The party might threaten to extend the idea to those implementing the measures suggested above. But this is the growl of a ‘paper tiger’. The likes of Tonga, Togo, Eritrea, Bermuda, Madagascar and India all participated in the 2018 winter games — but the vast majority of competitors come from North America, Europe, North East Asia and Australasia. These overwhelmingly represent China’s export markets. If these like-minded democracies act in concert and in disgust at genocide, then CCP sanctions would be self-harming.

The actions proposed would also hurt the International Olympic Committee, which derives very considerable income from the games (it is a non-profit, ploughing money back into the development of sport). While this collateral damage is unfortunate, it might make the IOC warier of holding the games in countries whose governments’ records on human rights are as atrocious as that of the CCP, not to mention out of step with IOC requirements for host cities.

So let us stand with history, stand with the athletes and stand with human rights. We can inflict a greater penalty on those responsible for crimes against humanity, and even avoid arguments amongst ourselves on the rights and wrongs of boycotts. Let the games commence — unless, of course, Covid imposes a boycott for us.

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