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International relations

UK lawmakers vote for diplomatic boycott of Beijing Games

Nonbinding move shows growing concern over Xinjiang among Western legislators

Demonstrators in London hold placards during a May protest against China's treatment of the Uyghur people.   © Reuters

LONDON -- British parliamentarians voted Thursday in favor of a motion to call on the government to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 unless alleged atrocities in Xinjiang are ended.

The lifting of Chinese sanctions on U.K. citizens and entities was another condition.

While the motions are not legally binding, the actions demonstrate the growing concern among lawmakers in the West over China's alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the clampdown on Hong Kong. This follows a similar move by the European parliament last week.

The debate in the U.K. was led by Tim Loughton, a Conservative member of parliament. A long-time advocate for Tibet and vocal critic of the situation in Xinjiang, Loughton was one of several British lawmakers sanctioned by Beijing in March.

In an interview with Nikkei Asia, Loughton said, "We should not go along with anything that tries to normalize what's going on in China."

While acknowledging that the U.K. is a not a power in the Winter Olympics, he said that if the U.K., U.S. and European parliament all passed similar motions, it would put pressure on others "to follow suit."

Following the debate, he published comments saying, "It's up to Britain and democratic states across the world to send a clear message to Beijing: we will not turn a blind eye to the abuses in the Uyghur Region, Tibet and Hong Kong, and we will not let you score a major propaganda victory at the Winter Olympics."

The opposition Labour Party has also demanded a political boycott unless United Nations investigators are allowed into Xinjiang. The cross-party committee of lawmakers that scrutinizes foreign policy also recommend a boycott by dignitaries, as well as discouraging British businesses to sponsor or advertise at the Games.

During the debate, Britain's Minister for Asia Nigel Adams stated no decision has yet been made about U.K. government attendance.

Prior to the debate, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said, "I will certainly consider the proposals debated, but I must say that I am instinctively, and always have been, against sporting boycotts."

U.K.-China relations have deteriorated significantly in the last year over Beijing's initial handling of the pandemic and developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In April, the British parliament declared the treatment of Uyghur people in Xinjiang was genocide. The declaration does not bind London to act, and the government has stated it is up to the courts to declare a genocide.

China rejects the allegations of human rights abuses and denies actions in Xinjiang constitute genocide.

An activist attends a rally last May to protest outside the White House against the treatment of Uyghur women and to call for the Biden administration to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics.   © Reuters

The European parliament voted through a resolution with a large majority on July 8 that called on the European Commission, European Council and EU countries to "decline invitations to government representatives and diplomats to attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics unless the Chinese Government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China."

The moves are part of coordinated action in 11 parliaments by members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international cross-party group of legislators who are pushing for democratic countries to take a tougher stance on China. According to IPAC, the Czech senate passed a similar resolution in June.

While there are doubts whether a boycott would have any material impact on Chinese policy, it is proving to be another facet that demonstrates deteriorating relations between western democracies and China.

In the U.S., some lawmakers have been calling for action from the government.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney retweeted the news that the European Parliament voted for diplomats to boycott the Games. "That's the right decision. The U.S. should follow suit," he tweeted.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a hearing on the Games in May that athletes could still compete in the Games but heads of states and royalty should not attend, according to CNBC. Pelosi accused companies who sponsor the games for looking "the other way on China's abuses" and questioned world leaders' "moral authority" if they are willing to attend the Games.

The Biden administration has said the U.S. is not discussing a potential boycott or any joint boycott with allies and partners.

In Germany, a winter sport heavyweight and an important economic partner for China, a spokesman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior said: "No decision has been taken yet as to which member of the German government, if any, will attend the Winter Olympics in 2022."

Japan and France, hosts of the next two Summer Olympics, are absent from the list of countries where parliamentarians are pressuring for government action on the Beijing Olympics. It appears the Chinese government has been keen to link together reciprocal support for each other's Games.

In April, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi by phone that China will continue promoting cooperation with Japan and "support each other" in hosting the Tokyo Olympic Games and the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

An official from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Nikkei Asia, "We decline to comment on the recent EU parliament's moves. Nothing has been decided about our response to the Beijing Olympics. We hope the Beijing Olympics will become the festival of peace in accordance with the ideals of the Olympics."

France will be hosting the 2024 Summer Games. Following a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on July 5, Beijing's press release said the three countries should "preserve a true multilateralism," and "support each other in the organization of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Paris Summer Olympics."

The French government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The European Uyghur Institute, an organization representing Uyghurs in the region based in France, is also calling for a boycott. "[We] will include this demand in a list that also includes the demand for recognition of genocide by the French government," it said in a statement. "We are indeed leading actions to have the genocide recognized by the French National Assembly."

According to Agence France-Presse, members of the Uyghur and Tibetan communities demonstrated on June 26 in front of the Olympic Museum of Lausanne, Switzerland, to protest against the Winter Olympics. The activists came from Switzerland, France, Germany and Lichtenstein.

In February, more than 180 groups that support Tibet, Hong Kong, and the Uyghur community published an open letter calling for a boycott.

Additional reporting by Marrian Zhou in New York, Mailys Pene-Lassus in Paris and Rurika Imahashi in Tokyo.

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