Sun 6 Feb 2022
by David Lammy
As the Games get under way, Britain must stand by the values embodied in Team GB and send a clear message to Beijing
China’s President Xi Jinping waves next to his wife Peng Liyuan at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on 4 February 2022. Photograph: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters
China should not have been given the honour of hosting this year’s Winter Olympics. When Beijing hosted the summer Games in 2008, the prevailing hope was that engagement with China would lead to greater openness. Such views now look naive. Instead, the opposite has happened: while China’s economy has boomed, the last decade has seen a concerted crackdown on human rights, a centralisation of political power and creeping and extensive surveillance, as athletes and officials are now discovering.
This growing authoritarianism has reached new and sinister heights under President Xi Jinping, including the dismantling of Hong Kong’s democracy. Most horrific is the situation in Xinjiang, where there is extensive evidence of mass “re-education” camps, forced labour, forced sterilisation and cultural repression on an industrial scale against the Uyghur people. The appalling treatment of the Uyghurs has led our parliament and others around the world to recognise that China’s actions amount to genocide.
This is why Labour has pressured the government into a political boycott: with no officials, politicians or representatives attending the Games. We did not say athletes should stay at home, because they train for their whole careers for the chance to take part in the Olympics. Cancelling the Winter Games would not be fair on competitors or on the Chinese people, who are not responsible for their government’s atrocities.
And the Olympics offers a platform not only to the host nation, but to all athletes. From the two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their black-gloved fists in solidarity with oppressed black and minority ethnic people across the world in 1968, to 2016’s first refugee Olympic team.
Team GB should be free to focus on doing their job: competing to the highest possible standard and winning medals. Their very presence at the Winter Olympics provides a platform for the values that Labour wants to inform Britain’s role in the world: security, prosperity and respect. But media coverage of the Games should recognise the context in which they are taking place, including highlighting the horrific human rights situation in China. Our politicians and diplomats are rightly staying at home, but this does not mean they should stay silent. They should raise these issues publicly and in international forums. The public should feel pride in Britain’s athletes, but also in our nation’s values, by standing up for fundamental rights, and showing solidarity with the oppressed in China.
The Conservatives are divided on China and have no clear strategy. After years of boosterish talk of a “golden era” of British-Chinese relations, during which the UK became the largest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe while turning a blind eye to human rights and security concerns, the government has performed a series of U-turns. While the foreign secretary tries to talk tough, the chancellor is trying to cash cheques and chase investment regardless of sensitivities. They even opposed an effort to ensure Britain doesn’t sign trade deals with countries believed to be committing genocide.
Where the government is failing to act, Labour has a plan. It starts with a complete audit of the UK-China relationship, as well as bringing new measures to help UK businesses to ensure their supply chains do not include workers subject to human rights violations and to ban the products of forced labour. We would extend targeted sanctions against Chinese officials directly responsible for persecution and redouble diplomatic efforts to allow the UN unfettered access to Xinjiang. The government needs to take a strong, clear-eyed and consistent approach to China, seeking to cooperate where we can on climate change and global health while standing firm on human rights, freedom and security.
We should cheer for our stars but we must not forget that the Winter Olympics is an important moment for Britain to stand up for our values. We must not turn a blind eye to genocide.