Signs of the enervating weakness of the west’s governing elites aren’t that hard to find but the case of the Winter Olympics may be the most demeaning. The UK and Canada have followed the US and Australia in announcing a diplomatic boycott of February’s games in Beijing over China’s human rights record. It’s a crushing blow to the communist dictatorship: Xi Jinping has been unable to sleep or dress himself since learning that the deputy head of the British mission will be skipping the mixed doubles luge final.
The UK’s boycott may not even be a boycott, with Boris Johnson saying ‘we do not support sporting boycotts but there are certainly no plans for ministers to attend the Winter Olympics’, then confirming there would be ‘effectively a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing’, and thereafter stating: ‘I do not think that sporting boycotts are sensible and that remains the policy of the government’. All three positions were announced in the space of nine minutes at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. The trouble with Johnson is not that he has no principles but that he has so many.
Everyone is very pleased with themselves, as though a grievous blow has been struck against Chinese authoritarianism. Messaging and symbolism are key to diplomacy but that is the problem: the west’s response to the rogue regime in Beijing never seems to move beyond carefully-worded statements and the occasional frown. To recap, 5.28 million deaths worldwide have been linked to a virus that, at the very least, China attempted to cover up and, at the very worst, could have been created in a Chinese lab and then shushed. Beijing has all but smothered the semi-liberal semi-democracy that Hong Kong had settled into in the post-British era, not least with its insidious National Security Law. The mainland has also escalated its campaign of intimidation and imperialism towards the Republic of China.
Of particular concern in the area of sports is the treatment of Peng Shuai. In November, the tennis champion posted an open letter to former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on social media site Weibo, accusing the ex-Politburo member of ‘forc[ing] me to have sex with you’. Her post and reporting on it was swiftly censored and Shuai then disappeared, prompting the International Olympic Committee to express ‘concern’ about her ‘well-being and safety’.
Nothing underscores the moral fecklessness of the west as grimly as what we delicately call ‘the situation in Xinjiang’. The Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group numbering 11 million in China’s north west, are being subjected to a campaign to wipe out their culture, customs and religious practices and to control their birthrate. More than one million have been forced into reeducation camps, where they report they are compelled to renounce Islam, tortured, raped, sterilised and separated from their children. There are reports of detainees being made to eat pork and drink alcohol, both of which are haram for observant Muslims. Under Donald Trump, the United States declared these efforts to constitute a genocide: a designation the Biden administration has not resiled from.
Beyond this recognition, the international response has been mostly of the tut-tut variety: it’s a ghastly business, of course, but we all quite like cheap electricals and sportswear. The west is abdicating responsibility not only to the Uighurs but to the values and international norms it insists be enforced elsewhere. When the US has convinced itself that withholding a few State Department functionaries from a sporting event is a serious response to a genocide, you start to wonder if the isolationism clamoured for by left and right in the past decade wouldn’t be for the best after all. When it was the world’s policeman, America commanded attention, fear, even awe. As the world’s crossing guard, pointing out the traffic lights and hoping everyone heeds them, the feeling inspired is closer to pity.
No wonder China doesn’t take the west seriously. Neither do we.