Mon, 26 February 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

The UK has never sent people to celebrate an Olympics where the host was credibly accused of genocide. Let’s not start now.

4 min read

Brace yourselves. As predicted, President Biden has used this week’s Summit for Democracy to announce a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. And you know what that means: Chairman Xi is going to go ballistic.

As night follows day, Beijing’s Wolf Warriors will be out in force, firing their increasingly unhinged tweets into cyber space, demented by their own performative loyalism. We will also see some reciprocal sanctions, though it’s hard to work out what they’ll be at this stage. In 2020 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) went after the NBA to punish a coach for tweeting about the plight of Uyghurs and secured a number of whimpering apologies, so maybe the attack will be via Chinese sponsorship of American sport. Who knows? 

Meanwhile, the UK is sitting on its hands. “No decisions have been made”, apparently. This despite consistent calls from the Labour and Tory backbenches, and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which successfully laid motions on a boycott in ten legislatures, including in the UK, where Tim Loughton MP’s motion passed unanimously. Not to mention the government’s own position on Xinjiang, which maintains that the PRC is meting out “torture on an industrial scale”. 

The PRC stands before us naked and unrepentant in its criminality, daring the international community to put up or shut up on human rights

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to send representatives to endorse an Olympic Games hosted by a country you’ve accused of mass torture. But, hey, consistency on China isn’t the UK’s strong suit. No wonder Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab are already breaking rank. The former says, “no tickets have been booked” and the latter was categorical on LBC at the weekend: “I’m not going”. 

What’s interesting is the real reason the UK is faltering. Back in January, in response to heavy pressure during the genocide amendment campaign, then Foreign Secretary Raab announced largely symbolic Magnitsky sanctions of four middle ranking PRC officials responsible for the PRC’s anti-Uyghur atrocities. 

I say “largely symbolic” because that’s precisely what they were intended to be. Under pressure, foreign policy bureaucrats between the EU, UK, Australia and Canada got together for a “something must be done” huddle and tried hard to determine who they could sanction that wouldn’t upset the PRC too much. Hence why they left out the one person everybody knows is responsible: Chen Quanguo, And didn’t include any of the more senior figures - all are up to their ears in genocide, including Xi Jinping himself, as leaked government documents have demonstrated.

Not for the first time, our officials were spectacularly wrong. The PRC was very, very upset. So incandescent, in fact, they decided to go on a veritable sanctioning spree. They sanctioned MPs from all over the world. They sanctioned peers. They sanctioned organisations that don’t have any legal personality. They sanctioned committees of MPs. They even sanctioned poor Neil O’Brien, who as far as I can make out was just minding his business. 

But - and here’s the point - their reciprocal sanctions worked. The UK was so spooked by the PRC’s wild overreaction (and what it says about the bilateral relationship) that everything “anti-China” has been put on ice.

Some evidence: in the same January 2021 speech that he announced the four sanctions, Dominic Raab promised from the despatch box that the UK would undertake an “urgent review” of exports to the Uyghur Region of China. Got that? “Urgent review”. Well, it can’t have been that urgent, because nothing has happened. 

Similarly, Raab promised to punish businesses which fail to comply with modern slavery legislation. Hasn’t happened. Meanwhile the most aptly named minister in government, Lord Grimstone, is going round telling people that Chinese investment is “only to our advantage” (huh?) and that the UK is “pursuing increased bilateral trade”. 

Liz Truss now faces a difficult choice. The PRC stands before us naked and unrepentant in its criminality, daring the international community to put up or shut up on human rights. Will she follow Biden’s lead and order a boycott? Or will she follow her officials and (reportedly, Number 10) and send diplomatic representatives to smash a bottle of champagne over these ill-fated Games?

Whatever you think of boycotts (like Boris, I don’t like them) there comes a point where the balance must tip. The UK has never sent people to celebrate an Olympics where the host was credibly accused of genocide. Let’s not start now.  


Luke de Pulford is the co-ordinator of the Inter Parliamentary Alliance on China.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Luke de Pulford - Forging closer ties with China is naïve


Foreign affairs