Will the US and other Western countries really boycott the Beijing Olympics?

Will the US and other Western countries really boycott the Beijing Olympics?

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

Why is momentum building for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics?

As Western countries' relations with Beijing grow more fraught, public opinion is increasingly focused on China's human rights abuses and authoritarian politics. Human rights and pro-democracy campaigners focus on the erosion of political freedoms in Hong Kong, threats to self-rule in Taiwan, and above all, Beijing's repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, which some Western governments have classified as genocide. Calls from activists to boycott what they label the "Genocide Games" will grow as the Opening Ceremony approaches next February, increasing the reputational risk for governments and companies that participate. This February, over 180 human rights groups published an open letter that urged all governments to refrain from sending political representatives to the Games — a so-called diplomatic boycott.

How has the situation changed since the last Chinese Olympics?

Back in 2008 there were calls to boycott the Beijing Summer Olympics because of religious persecution in Tibet and Beijing's support for a violent regime in Sudan. They mostly failed. A few politicians, notably German leader Angela Merkel, decided not to attend the Games, though more than 80 national leaders, including US president George W. Bush, still showed up.

But Western attitudes toward China have worsened considerably since 2008. Under Xi Jinping, who came to power in late 2012, China has become more authoritarian at home and more assertive abroad. Political crackdowns, human rights abuses, and aggressive "wolf warrior" diplomacy — with its politicized insults and economic threats directed at foreign countries and officials — are hardening attitudes toward China in Western governments, media, and publics.

What would a boycott look like, and how would China respond?

The experience of missing the 1980 Moscow Games — which hurt the careers of a generation of US athletes — soured the US National Olympic Committee on the idea of athletic boycotts. Most National Olympic Committees around the world agree. Given that these bodies must approve any athletic boycott, their stance makes a diplomatic response the more likely option. This path would see the US and other Western countries refuse to send high-level politicians or diplomats to the Opening Ceremony and other events. President Joe Biden, for one, will find it politically difficult to endorse the Games after supporting a genocide designation for Beijing's actions in Xinjiang.

Western activists and consumers are also pressuring corporations to withdraw from Olympic sponsorship deals. These firms are in a tough position. On the one hand, they risk reputational damage in the West by supporting a Games linked to Beijing's politics. On the other hand, any political statement against the Games by a corporation (or by a corporation's home country government) would trigger an even more vigorous (and likely state-approved) consumer backlash in China, jeopardizing commercial opportunities in the world's largest market.

What countries would be likely to participate in a boycott?

The most likely participants are the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, and several other western European countries, all of which say the protection of human rights is a key foreign policy objective and whose relations with China have deteriorated in recent years. Consequently, their governments face political pressure to punish Beijing for its conduct in Xinjiang and elsewhere. If a boycott goes ahead, these countries will seek to move as a group to raise the costs of retaliation for Beijing. US partners in the Indo-Pacific — such as Japan, South Korea, and India — are less likely to participate in a boycott because of their deeper economic ties with China and trickier security dynamics as close neighbors of China. Tokyo and New Delhi both contest territory with Beijing, while Seoul wants Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea.

What are individual athletes likely to do?

Athletes will be a wildcard in boycott dynamics. Human rights advocates are urging them to protest through social media, t-shirt slogans, or media interviews. Canadian athletes are the most likely to rally behind these calls, so long as two of their countrymen — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — languish in Chinese prisons for what are widely viewed as political reasons.

Doesn't the Olympic Charter forbid political protests?

Yes, but governments or sponsors that penalize athletes for speaking out would face a severe consumer and political backlash in the West. The US National Olympic Committee, for its part, says it won't punish athletes who "advocate for racial and social justice." Beijing will likely go to great lengths to control public events to avoid any potential embarrassment but will struggle to stamp out activism, particularly on social media, which it can control only within its own borders.

Neil Thomas is Adviser, China and Allison Sherlock is Associate, China at Eurasia Group.

While residents of wealthy countries are getting ready for hot vaxxed summer — COVID is still ravaging many low- and middle-income countries. The horrifying scenes coming out of India in recent weeks have gripped the world, causing governments and civil society to quickly mobilize and pledge support.

But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is also being pummeled by the pandemic — and has been for a year now. Yet thus far, the outpouring of aid and (solidarity) hasn't been as large.

What explains the global alarm at India's situation, and seeming passivity towards Brazil's plight? What are the politics of compassion?

More Show less

Delhi-based reporter Barkha Dutt's decades of journalism couldn't prepare her for the horrific experience of covering the death of one specific COVID-19 victim: her own father. In a conversation with Ian Bremmer, Dutt recounts her desperate struggle to find an ambulance to take her father through Delhi traffic to reach the hospital, only for him to die in the ICU. Their in-depth discussion looks at India's struggle with the world's worst COVID crisis in the upcoming episode of GZERO World begins airing on US public television Friday, May 7. Check local listings.

A Green Party-led government for the world's fourth largest economy? That's no longer far-fetched. As Signal's Gabrielle Debinski wrote last month, most current polls now show Germany's Greens in first place in federal elections set for September 26. And for the first time, the Greens have a candidate for chancellor. Annalena Baerbock is vying to replace Angela Merkel, who has led Germany for the past 16 years.

More Show less

India and Brazil are currently the world's top two COVID hotspots. But while India's crisis is — at least according to official statistics — a relatively recent one, Brazil's COVID disaster has been an ongoing train wreck. Where India seemed to have kept the pandemic under control until some bad missteps about two months ago, COVID has been wreaking havoc in Brazil almost constantly for over a year now. And President Jair Bolsonaro's macho-posturing and COVID denialism has clearly not helped. We take a look at average daily new cases and deaths in both countries since the pandemic began.

US reverses course on vaccine patents: In a surprise move, the Biden administration will now support waiving international property rights for COVID vaccines at the World Trade Organization. Until now the US had firmly opposed waiving those patents, despite demands from developing countries led by India and South Africa to do so. Biden's about face comes just a week after he moved to free up 60 million of American-bought AstraZeneca jabs — still not approved by US regulators — for nations in need. It's not clear how fast an IP waiver would really help other countries, as the major impediments to ramping up vaccine manufacturing have more to do with logistics and supply chains than with patent protections alone. But if patent waivers do accelerate production over time, then that could accelerate a global return to normal — potentially winning the US a ton of goodwill.

More Show less

28: Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's opposition Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, has 28 days to form a new government. President Reuven Rivlin tapped Lapid after incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to cobble together a governing coalition by Tuesday's midnight deadline, further prolonging Israel's political stalemate.

More Show less

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

How big of a blow is Apple's new privacy feature to companies like Facebook, who depend on tracking users?

The long-awaited update, including enhanced privacy features, actually empowers those users to decide not to be tracked. So that's great news for people who are sick of how the data trail they leave behind on the web is used. But it has to be said, that simple feature settings changed by Apple cannot solve the problem of misuse of data and microtargeting alone. Still, Apple's move was met with predictable outrage and anti-trust accusations from ad giant Facebook. I would anticipate more standard setting by companies in the absence of a federal data protection law in the United States. That's just to mention one vacuum that big tech thrives on.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

India’s COVID crisis hits home

GZERO World Clips
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal