16 December 2021
About the boycott.
By John Watson
It sticks in the throat to say it but perhaps the French are right, not in relation to matters generally, of course, but in relation to the diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympics. Macron has made it clear that France will not be joining the US, Canada, Britain and Australia in the half-way house sanctions under which those countries will not be officially represented but will allow their athletes to compete as individuals, rather as Russian athletes did last time round. He says that the boycott is ineffective and useless and, to be fair to him, it is hard to see that it will change the attitude of China on any of the matters to which it is addressed. Will it save the Uyghurs from oppression and genocide? Surely not. Will it ameliorate the governing of Hong Kong? No again. Will it end the detention of whistle blowing tennis star Peng Shuai which is at least an issue concerned with sport? Alas, no again. There are now issues of face involved which make her release less likely rather than more so. What is the boycott for, then?
The answer to that seems to be some form of virtue signalling. The West does not approve of genocide or oppression, particularly when in breach of international law, so it needs to be able to demonstrate that it has done something. Well, OK, so far maybe, but for whose benefit is this demonstration being made? There are two possible audiences. One is the citizens of the boycotting nations. Now it may be very pleasant for them to be able to strut about, thumping themselves approvingly on the chest and congratulating themselves on being part of a coalition that will pursue international wrongdoing wherever it finds it like an international version of Dixon of Dock Green, but it is hard to see that conceit is an objective for which much political capital should be expended. Even the theory that it suits the governments involved because they look strong to their own electorates assumes an unlikely naivety in public perception. Certainly it must be the view of Mr Macron, engaged as he is in the early stages of a battle to retain the presidency, that there is no electoral mileage here.
If that is not the audience, let us try it the other way. Will these sanctions put pressure on the Chinese government through public opinion? Certainly the authorities there will have to have a story since the absence of the flags of major sporting nations can hardly be hidden, but presumably they will spin it as a bossy attempt by neo-imperialists to interfere in China’s internal affairs and the trouble is that they can make that case quite persuasively. After all, however ugly we may find their conduct, these are all issues relating to China’s internal affairs and although the treatment of the Uyghurs clearly breaches the Genocide Convention which China signed in 1948 that is unlikely to strike a chord with the population as a whole. To a regime which controls the press, messages about foreign devils trying to undermine China’s sovereignty, as they often have before, should be easy to sell. It is true that the Uyghurs, the citizens of Hong Kong and Peng Shuai may be comforted to know that their plight is not unnoticed but that is small beer in the world of international advantages.
In a better world, politics would be a matter of high principle but in reality action is dictated by price. If the boycott brings little advantage then the next question must be what it costs us. If the Glasgow summit achieved anything it was to make clear that environmental measures crucial to all of us depend on a much higher degree of international cooperation that we have enjoyed in the past and the same can be said for other areas like disease control and disarmament. If the human race is to continue, nation states will have to accept limits on their sovereignty and making the necessary change to the system is going to require a huge increase in cooperation and trust. Easily the most important result of Glasgow was the agreement between the US and China to work together. Not much, it is true but the only hope we have. Is it really sensible to take measures which will undermine the necessary improvement in relations unless there are very considerable upsides?
Oddly the one country to benefit from the boycott is France. No doubt the Chinese will make much of their attendance and they could easily find themselves acting as a diplomatic conduit between that country and the West. Normally when we see the French go one up over us in the diplomatic stakes the reaction is to snort and slag off the “slimy frogs”. This time though the maintenance of relations with China is of such importance that we will have to bite our lips and mutter through gritted teeth “ Well done, mes amis”.