Diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics sends message but can it lead to change?

By Jackson Graham

Thursday December 9, 2021

Zali Steggall in parliament
Independent Member for Warringah Zali Steggall. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The federal government’s decision not to send officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics has broad support from Labor and some policy experts, but questions surround if it will improve human rights in China. 

Prime minister Scott Morrison has ordered officials and dignitaries not to attend the Games in February but athletes will, in response to human rights abuses in Xinjiang and over issues including trade relations.

Labor foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has supported the move. She supported participants taking the opportunity to represent their country, but also raised questions about athlete safety. 

“The Australian Government must ensure our team is supported by embassy staff on the ground,” Wong said. 

ANU Australia-China relations academic Dr Benjamin Herscovitch said Australia’s decision, mirroring the move by the US to send athletes but not officials to the Games, has served “diplomatic optics” by highlighting the nations’ concerns over human rights abuses. 

“It makes Beijing take notice. That’s a key part of a diplomatic manoeuvre of this kind,” he told The Mandarin

“On the other side of the ledger, it probably doesn’t make a difference in terms of materially changing the situation in China.

“It probably won’t deter the Chinese government from pursuing policies that amount to human rights abuses.”

Warringah MP Zali Steggall, an independent who competed at four winter olympics and won Australia’s first individual medal for slalom skiing, told The Mandarin in a statement she strongly opposed any boycott involving athletes. 

She believed a boycott involving officials needed to improve the human rights situation in China. 

“[It] would need to maintain the focus on what we can actually do to support the Uighurs,” Steggall said. 

She said the boycott had to be weighed up with the Games also opening doors for better diplomatic relations. 

“We can’t resolve or progress any of these issues by shutting the door to communication. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests that we have an escalation of conflict,” Steggall said. 

“I was an arbitrator for the International Court of Arbitration for Sport at the Pyongyang Olympic Games in South Korea, and those games opened up the opportunity for discussions with North Korea. We saw sporting teams across the borders and some reunification that hadn’t occurred in years.” 

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Games weren’t for “political posturing and manipulation” and played down the impact of officials not attending. 

“No one would care whether they come or not, and Australian politicians’ political stunt for selfish gains has no impact whatsoever on the Olympics to be successfully held by Beijing,” Wenbin said in a statement. 

He claimed Australia was “blindly” following the US, without naming the country, and said Australia “doesn’t scruple to confuse right with wrong”. 

“The US and Australia will pay a price for their erroneous actions.”

Herscovitch said although Australia risked being seen as reflecting the US position, it had a strong moral case for pursuing the boycott. 

“I think there is a strong strategic rationale for waiting for the US to move in following the US lead. That reduces the hostility from China. But I don’t think that is to say Australia is taking this decision just because the US has done it,” he said. 

“The nature of the bilateral relationship arguably warrants some kind of response on this issue.”

He saw no safety risk to athletes attending the Games. But despite best efforts from the Games not to conflate politics and sport, he believed this was now inevitable. 

“Try as you might, politics will intrude. Particularly in the current environment we are dealing with,” Herscovitch said.


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