US President Biden announced on Monday what he had been threatening for some time: a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. American athletes will simply travel to China in February, but there will be no government representatives from Washington in the stands.
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“In light of the blatant human rights violations in Xinjiang, we simply cannot pretend that these Games are the normal course of business,” said Biden’s spokesman. She was referring to the fate of the Uyghur minority in that region. China had already threatened “countermeasures” if the US did take this step.
This raises the question of whether a diplomatic boycott makes sense. It also raises the question of what the Netherlands should do.
The US government wants to make a statement about Xinjiang, where it is estimated that at least one million Uyghurs are being held in ‘re-education camps’. There they are forcefully forced to adopt Han Chinese values and lifestyle. Beijing insists that this is how it helps Uyghurs to embrace modern life.
However, reports about the camps point to widespread, serious crimes committed by the camp guards. Refugee Uyghurs talk about systematic rape, forced sterilization and secret torture chambers. House of Representatives decided earlier this year to label the abuses in Xinjiang as genocide, following the example of the US government.
In addition, the free world is upset with China’s dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong, where the introduction of a strict security law has made any comment on the Beijing regime impossible.
The West feels powerless on both issues. International law is not sufficient for the crimes in Xinjiang, economic sanctions are a recipe for counter-sanctions and no one is considering military intervention. China is simply too powerful.
What effect, then, can be expected from a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games? Athletes may not thank their government if the country they come from doesn’t come to see them. And China won’t be scared to leave the Uyghurs alone. In addition, Chinese threats about countermeasures are to be taken seriously; when Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus last year, it was promptly met with economic sanctions.
Shining through absence also never lasts long. After it is determined that you are not there, the party will continue without you. This will probably also be the case in Beijing. After it is noticed at the opening ceremony that certain world leaders are missing, the attention simply turns to the medal tally.
Although a diplomatic boycott is therefore mainly a symbolic step, and moreover not without risks, it is also worth considering for the Netherlands in the absence of other options. The effect will partly depend on the number of countries that join.
It is difficult for the Dutch parliament to ignore the issue. Can you call the systematic attack on a population group genocide one moment and send a high-ranking delegation to that same country a few months later? The time is approaching to determine a position on this.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 7, 2021