Labour's Louisa Wall calls for diplomatic boycott of 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, for leaders to turn down invitations

Labour MP Louisa Wall is calling for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, something parliamentarians across Europe this month also expressed support for.

More than 180 human rights groups are calling for a boycott of next February's event in protest of human rights abuses underway in the Asian nation, including the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, anti-democratic behaviour in Hong Kong and expansion in the South China Sea.

While no major Western nation has yet agreed to boycott the Games, and most are currently focussed on the Summer Olympics in COVID-19-ridden Tokyo, the issue is gaining traction overseas.

It was forced into the spotlight last week when the European Parliament voted in favour of a non-binding motion calling for diplomats to skip the Games. The United Kingdom's cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee then added its voice to the chorus, before the country's Parliament on Friday said officials and royals shouldn't head along. One MP referred to them as the "Genocide Games", a label other advocates have also used. 

Across the pond, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June said the US was consulting with allies "to look at the common concerns we have and ideally to establish a common approach", while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has spoken out in favour of a boycott

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is resisting calls to take a stance, saying it must "stay neutral on all global political issues", while China, as expected, has ferociously opposed what it calls the "politicisation of sports". 

Despite moves in other countries, New Zealand is not yet officially addressing the issue.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta hasn't been briefed on the Olympics or discussed a potential boycott with counterparts, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) wouldn't state a position.

"The New Zealand Government has regular contact with the New Zealand Olympic Committee and Paralympics New Zealand," a MFAT spokesperson told Newshub.

"The immediate focus is the Tokyo Games, however once these are concluded, the focus will shift to the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics."

But Wall, a Labour MP and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) who has previously broken rank with the Government on China issues, has told Newshub she supports a diplomatic boycott, "including advocating advice to respective citizens not to travel". 

She also backs a recent statement from the IPAC calling on "our respective political leaders and national representatives to decline invitations to attend" the Games. 

"Failure to do so risks legitimising the Chinese government’s repressive policies," it says. "We also urge commercial sponsors of the Games to consider withdrawing their support for the games, and call on the International Olympics Committee to guarantee the freedom of expression for the media and athletes during the Games."

Louisa Wall.
Louisa Wall. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The IPAC says the Olympics should be a celebration which can transcend "national and political divides". But that, it says, "cannot be reconciled with holding the Games in a country whose government stands credibly accused of perpetrating atrocity crimes against its own population". 

"To do so discredits the ethos of the Olympic movement and undermines its purpose. While it is right that the International Olympic Committee should stay above politics, this cannot permit us to turn a blind eye to industrial-scale human rights abuses."

Wall told Newshub she also supported athletes' "freedom of expression", noting that the IOC had recently confirmed its long-standing ban on political protests "on the field of play, medal podiums or official ceremonies".

"Countries can support on-athlete apparel [with] the words 'peace', 'respect', 'solidarity', 'inclusion' and 'equality'. I support a global campaign to promote these values to help highlight that Olympic hosts should uphold the purpose of The Olympic Games as an international sports festival, held every four years. The ultimate goals are to cultivate human beings, through sport, and contribute to world peace."

Wall has previously been vocal about human rights abuses in China, New Zealand's largest trading partner. Last week, she accused China of organ harvesting and said New Zealand should be able to declare a genocide is underway in Xinjiang by the end of the year. 

Gerry Brownlee, National's foreign affairs spokesperson, wants to see if China cooperates with the United Nations by opening Xinjiang up to independent observers to assess the treatment of the Uighur people, before he commits to a position. So far, China hasn't allowed this. 

"That would make quite a difference to the way in which the world might view things, either positively or negatively… I think what is necessary is to continue to put pressure on China to let that UN delegation come in," he told Newshub. 

"The problem is there is always a spike up in pressure and then it drops away. I think we need to keep that up. The only way that China is going to convince the world that their view or their claims about the situation in Xinjiang is the right one will, in fact, be to let that UN based delegation to come and have a look."

So would National back a boycott if China doesn't agree to let observers in by the end of the year?

"At that point, I think it would be reasonable to have a look at it. But in the end, sometimes these boycotts, they never actually achieve all that much."

Gerry Brownlee.
Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: Newshub.

Are boycotts effective?

That's a point raised by several experts skeptical of how effective a boycott would be in influencing China to address its behaviour. 

For Doug Booth, a researcher at the New Zealand Centre for Sport Policy and Politics, a boycott would simply be a "symbolic slap… like being hit in the face with a wet lettuce leaf". 

"You are humiliated for a mili-second and then so what?"

He asks what is the cost to China for making concessions. 

"You trade off an Olympic Games versus building atolls and increasing the landmass of atolls in the South China Seas. Well, the two just simply don't compare," he told Newshub.

"China sees its presence in the South China Sea, for example, as being far more significant than getting a three-minute pat on the back for hosting a good Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

"If you're going to call for a boycott and you're going to enforce a boycott, what are the actual demands that you are making and are they comparable to whatever symbolic political capital can be gained from a boycott."

Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Looking at previous boycotts - such as the famous boycott of the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan - Booth says there's little evidence such actions have credible results. 

"The Soviet Union wasn't going to withdraw from Afghanistan because the West didn't roll up to Moscow. A few years later, they withdrew because of the geopolitical and military realities of what was happening in Afghanistan.

"I think you're going to find very, very, very few examples of where things have concretely changed because of a boycott. Almost invariably those changes come about not in the immediate aftermath, but over time."

China's human rights record was a point of debate prior to its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games as well. At the time, the IOC and several countries argued that by allowing China to host the Olympics, it would put a spotlight on "non-sports-related issues" and may make the country more receptive to concerns.

"Of course, here we are 14 years on and, of course, China has not changed its behavior one iota. In fact, under its current regime, it's actually hardened its attitude," Booth said. 

It's a point the 180 human rights groups make in speaking out against Beijing's hosting of the 2022 Games.

"The IOC refused to listen in 2008, defending its decision with claims that they would prove to be a catalyst for improved human rights," they said. "As human rights experts predicted, this decision proved to be hugely misplaced; not only did China's human rights record not improve but violations increased substantially without rebuke."

Booth also doesn't buy the argument used by some international Olympic committees and sportspeople that if they weren't to attend the Games, they'd be missing out on a historic event they'd been training their whole lives for. 

"The Olympic Games are a very likable sport, that's manufactured and it's constructed over the course of 120-odd years and it's just another just another sporting event," he said.

"I would argue that the most professional athletes who actually train on a month by month, year by year, week by week basis, it's their domestic and national competitions and the World Cup, the World Games, which are as critical and as important as the Olympic Games."

Booth believes there could be some athletes who decide to boycott as a "statement of individual ethics and morality". 

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

'Politicians will be keen to sidestep'

If the proposed boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics gathers steam, it will be another contentious issue for the New Zealand Government to consider as it attempts to walk the ever-narrowing tightrope of relations with China. 

Geoffrey Miller, an international relations analyst with Victoria University's Democracy Project, believes a number of factors will "dampen down any talk" in New Zealand of a boycott.

That includes the fact New Zealand sends a relatively small contingent of athletes to Winter Olympics - it sent 21 in 2018 - and that it isn't likely any high-profile ministers or officials would be attending, especially in the middle of a pandemic. 

"The COVID situation may make it easier for politicians to dodge when it comes to their attendance," he told Newshub.

"I think politicians will be keen to sidestep any boycott decision on athletes and pass it to the NZ Olympic Committee. [They'd] simply say it's a matter for the New Zealand Olympic Committee and hopefully that takes the heat off of politicians."

If the proposed boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics gathers steam, it will be another curveball for the New Zealand Government.
If the proposed boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics gathers steam, it will be another curveball for the New Zealand Government. Photo credit: Getty Images.

But it could be a different story if other countries begin to pull out, and one that requires New Zealand to pick between China and its traditional Western partners. 

"If it becomes a really big campaign globally, that in some ways would make it easier for New Zealand. If a lot of countries join a boycott, New Zealand has a kind of cover to join that," Miller said.

"If it just becomes a Western thing or the Five Eyes countries or just in some European countries, then I think it becomes a bit harder for New Zealand because essentially New Zealand would be picking a side again.

"If New Zealand didn't join a diplomatic boycott and Australia, UK, US, Canada, other Western countries did, then New Zealand would obviously stand out."

Miller believes there would need to be a further escalation in events in China for other countries to agree to boycott. 

"There would need to be some kind of tipping point, personally, because I don't see that at the moment. I don't think the boycott movement really is at the point that it's you know, that it's likely to see this mass approval," he said. 

"This is perhaps the wider danger for New Zealand, this constant attempt to get New Zealand to sign up to essentially the Western China skeptic's alliance, if you like. New Zealand, so far, is trying to dodge this and resist this and is trying to keep onside essentially with both major blocs, with China and with the West."

"Eventually the time may come when New Zealand is going to have to choose - is forced to pick a side - and that can be very difficult. I don't think we're at that point yet. I think New Zealand's still managing to dodge and talk and talk and keep both sides sort of happy."