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Beijing Boycott: Australia, Canada, UK Align With US Stance on 2022 Olympics

Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom will join the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in the latest sign of deteriorating relations between China and the West over reports of human-rights abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The White House confirmed Monday that it will not be sending any official representation to the Beijing Games in February and March, citing the ruling Communist Party’s “ongoing atrocities” against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim groups, including extrajudicial detentions, torture, forced labor, family separations, restrictions on religious practices and forced sterilizations.

The decision, which does not bar American athletes from participating, “does not modulate at all our support for Team U.S.A.,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Tuesday. “We will be cheering them on. But of course, we will not have any official or diplomatic representation that would send a signal that these Games represent anything akin to business as usual in the face of these ongoing atrocities, crimes against humanity and the ongoing genocide.”

Australian leader Scott Morrison said in a press conference Tuesday that his administration has been struggling to engage with Beijing over political disputes and human-rights issues. “I am very…happy to talk to the Chinese government about these issues, and there has been no obstacle to that occurring on our side but the Chinese government has consistently not taken those opportunities to meet with us about those issues,” he said. “Australian government officials [will] therefore not be going to China for those Games. Australian athletes will, though.”

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When questioned during a parliament session on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he didn’t think that sporting boycotts were “sensible” but that there will “effectively [be] a diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Games because no ministers or officials are expected to show up. It’s unclear, however, if members of the British royal family could still attend. Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth II’s daughter, a former Olympic equestrian, is president of the British Olympic Association and a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Later on Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa will be joining its allies in keeping its diplomats home. “Many partners around the world are extremely concerned by the repeated human-rights violations by the Chinese government,” he told reporters. “That’s why we are announcing today that we will not be sending any diplomatic representation to the Beijing Olympics.”

Will the European Union follow suit? While the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution in July calling on the bloc’s diplomats to turn down invitations to the Beijing Games “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,” only Lithuania has said its officials will shun the Games. France said in a statement Tuesday that it is “taking note” of the United States’ decision and will “coordinate at the European level.”

China’s foreign ministry previously criticized the White House for “politicizing sports,” calling its diplomatic boycott “wishful thinking and pure grandstanding…aimed at political manipulation,” a “grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic charter,” a “blatant political provocation” and a “serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

On Wednesday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin took aim at Australia, accusing it of “blindly following [a] certain country” and seeking excuses to “find fault with China.”

“China hasn’t invited any Australian government official to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics,” he said. “In fact, 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.”

What kind of fallout the diplomatic boycotts will have on Western brands is yet to be determined, said Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm. Diplomatic policies and consumer sentiment follow “different arcs with different pressures and timelines,” so a straight diplomatic boycott will have minimal impact on the brand sponsors whose marketing plans have been in place for a while.

“But if the diplomatic boycott widens to include commercial restrictions, then there will be some fallout as brands will scramble to adjust their execution plans,” Portell told Sourcing Journal.

Still, the issue of fatigue and resource availability will have a greater impact on brand sponsors than the diplomatic boycott itself, said Portell, pointing to the Covid-induced delay of the Tokyo Games compressing planning schedules for brand sponsors. “Their teams experience the same stress and tension as the rest of the workforce. The difference for brands is that execution timelines can’t be delayed,” he said. “The risk of missing execution windows is a top concern for brand sponsors, and that is completely independent of the diplomatic boycott.”

Another open question is how the coverage of the games will reference the diplomatic boycott. “Typically, broadcast partners avoid negative coverage of their event partners. If that holds consistent, we can expect only passing reference to the absence of U.S. and other government representation,” Portell said. “However, if the reasons for why the boycott was put in place become a focus of discussion—either in the official broadcast or secondary coverage—brand sponsors may find themselves in a tough spot.”

With consumers increasingly expecting companies and even more so, sponsors, to model “acceptable behavior,” brands may find themselves in a bind. “Questions surrounding the Olympics and World Cup may put brand sponsors in the middle of a debate they don’t want to have,” he added.

Price, the State Department spokesperson, said that the private sector has to make its own decisions about whether to boycott the Beijing Games.

“We have gone to extraordinary lengths to send unambiguous messages to the international community, and that includes the private sector, about the concerns that we have with the human-rights abuses that are ongoing in Xinjiang,” Price said Tuesday. “We want the private sector to be fully cognizant and to operate with full information, with regard to what is transpiring in Xinjiang. It is not, in this country, the role of the government to dictate the practices that the private sector should adopt.”

But the diplomatic boycotts alone are enough to be interpreted as an insult to China, inflaming global tensions, said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, an analytics firm, told Sourcing Journal.

“How much this filters down into consumer behavior remains to be seen, but it can only be unhelpful for Western brands,” said Saunders, noting the sales slumps for Adidas, H&M and Nike following this summer’s state-sanctioned consumer backlash. “If the Chinese government makes a fuss about the boycotts, that could persuade more people to stop buying Western products. While not all consumers take notice of boycotts, Chinese consumers are more regimented in taking action than consumers in countries like the U.S. where people don’t always put their money where their mouth is.”