The Rationale and Impact of Diplomatic Boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Olympics

The diplomatic attendance of Western government officials at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February is falling like dominoes. The UK has now joined the United States, Australia and Canada in confirming that no senior personnel will travel to China, although their athletes will continue to compete. New Zealand, which has indicated it will also refrain from sending officials due to the pandemic, partially falls in behind its Five Eyes partners.

It had long been expected that the Beijing Winter Olympics would be a stage for geopolitical wrangling, but the inconsistency in the positions of Western nations towards China – all seeking to achieve ‘balance’ but making independently defined choices around its trade-offs – meant it was unclear just how extensive any diplomatic boycotts would prove to be. The past six months, however, has seen an effort among G7 and Five Eyes partners in particular to better coordinate approaches on China, evident in a series of new joint statements, sanctions and cooperative initiatives.

China, which remains largely closed to the world, has viewed the Games as an opportunity to reopen its doors and reframe its global image after a bruising period as the origin point of the coronavirus pandemic, and in light of dramatic shifts in tone and policy amongst Western democracies and liberal nations. Its efforts to advance its international soft power during the pandemic have generated mixed results, and the domestic landscape – with the CCP’s regime underpinned by a compact around continuous economic growth – is troubled by elements of fragility. In the eyes of President Xi, the Olympics could offer a branding reset with the potential for gains at both home and abroad, hitching modern China’s story to the enduring mythology the Games promotes around universal human achievement.

All nations seek to tap into the patriotism and collective goodwill that can be inspired by cheering on their athletes on the world stage, and these moments can be particularly significant as advanced democracies struggle to articulate a sense of shared national identity and common purpose. For China’s leaders, however, there has been a long-standing narrative project to emphasise the nation’s historical continuity and align its story with the great civilisations, including Ancient Greece as the home of the Olympic Games. The CCP is approaching the staging of these Olympics with the same degree of focused, ruthless enthusiasm it applies to all of its nation-building priorities.

It is unhelpful as a general principle to draw comparisons between contemporary China and the Soviet Union of the Cold War era, but in this instance, the parallels to be made between two superpowers seeking to promote a narrative of domestic self-sufficiency and international competitiveness via the Olympic Games feel more appropriate than most. In particular, the link that is being made between the ‘health’ and ‘virtues’ of China’s people, their unfaltering devotion to the nation, and the relationship drawn between the pursuits of sporting and scientific excellence.

In some ways, the political attention being devoted to these Winter Olympics is a direct contrast and perhaps even a direct response to the enthusiasm with which Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics were received. Despite many aspects of the Games’ preparation and staging sending very clear alarm bells about the instincts of the Chinese leadership, they were held at a time in which the belief that an approach of economic and diplomatic inclusivity with China would inevitably encourage its democratic transformation prevailed. Fourteen years on, the Beijing 2022 Winter Games mark the final unravelling of this ambition in the West, with disillusionment, cynicism and mistrust towards China’s regime increasingly embedded among both political elites and citizens.

These Olympics will be staged against the backdrop of the convening of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress, at which President Xi will almost certainly secure permission to break the conventions of the traditional term limits and entrench his power for a potentially indefinite period of rule. The certification of Xi’s legitimacy will remove any blinkers from the West about the prospects for any kind of fundamental improvements in Chinese relations in the coming decade.

While geographically distant from China, the risk of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine is also casting a spectre across the Games – in part because of the rising concern about some elements of meaningful Chinese-Russian cooperation, but also because of the potential role that the timing of the Games may play in influencing the theatre of warfare. President Xi does not want the Winter Olympics to be staged against a narrative of war, and both he and President Putin want the opportunity to realise the full benefits of the Games for their own national self-interest. The West cannot forget that it was in the aftermath of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 that President Putin broke forth and annexed Crimea, as well as seizing Eastern territories along the Ukraine-Russia border.

It is unclear whether other Western partners will fall in behind the Five Eyes powers in their diplomatic boycott; while France has suggested it will chart its own course, the new German Foreign Minister has proposed an EU-wide approach is forged – which could, in the end, lead to the same ends. The boycotts themselves should be seen as less of a shot across the bow towards influence China, which has already made its ‘offence’ clear, and more an expression of the new lines being drawn around the baseline of engagement with this authoritarian superpower. Once again, the question of China becomes a test for the West to determine where and how it is most productive, and most feasible, to forge consensus.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.