Breaking eggs: Australia’s Beijing boycott a good step but the real power lies with athletes

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has done the right thing: he’s announced Australia will join a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics because of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses.

While it couldn’t be taken for granted, this wasn’t really a hard decision for the Australian government.

The government won’t need to turn off ministers’ flight arrangements to Beijing. And it would simply make no sense for Australian government officials to be seen celebrating Beijing hosting this major international sporting event at time when Australian citizens like newsreader Cheng Lei and writer Yang Hengjun are detained in China and Beijing is using its trade relationship with us as a weapon.

Morrison has joined US President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott because of the Chinese government’s large-scale human rights abuses against its own citizens in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and more broadly through arbitrary arrest, silencing and detention of other Chinese citizens and of foreigners in mainland China.

Other governments are likely to join, but the real power lies with the athletes themselves. That may have dawned on Chinese officials involved in stage-managing this peak prestige event for Xi Jinping.

Biden’s decision was probably in the ‘must do’ bucket for his administration, given human rights are at the centre of its foreign policy. That’s why Xi had tried to stop him from making it. At their recent summit, Xi told Biden that China would ‘safeguard its own sovereignty, security and development’ and the US should ‘carefully handle issues related to this’ and not impinge on China’s ‘core interests’. Xi was saying the US needed to pay this price for future summits to be realised. And Chinese officials threatened the US with ‘countermeasures’ if a boycott occurred.

Biden has clearly refused Xi’s instruction and terms of engagement and hasn’t been cowed by Beijing’s threats.

For Australia, further threats against trade risk damaging China’s economy more than ours (as we’ve seen already with coal), but the prospect should motivate every Australian company to continue to diversify away from the China market.

The diplomatic boycott is the right decision for Australia and any country that values human rights. We could take the extra step, though, of not having our athletes fly the Australian flag—like Malcolm Fraser did for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when the Australian team marched under the Olympic flag.

In some ways, it’s a harder test for other governments, such as Germany’s new coalition. There, the Greens, who now hold the foreign ministry, have spoken about Germany taking a clearer, stronger line on human rights and China—for the same reasons Biden announced the US boycott. Now’s a moment to see if this matters from the position of government and not just while campaigning.

New Zealand took the odd decision of telling Beijing back in October that it wouldn’t send ministerial-level representatives, but saying publicly now that ‘a range of factors’ were behind the decision, which was ‘mostly to do with Covid’. That ‘depurposes’ the decision, which should be about values and principles.

The question that probably needs asking is not who joins the boycott, but who doesn’t. This a test about whether a government can just look away from the nature of the Chinese regime because of the fear of economic and political consequences.

Here, there’s no refuge in Olympic values and sport being beyond politics. For the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders, the 2022 Winter Olympics is all about politics and prestige—projecting an image of a successful, strong China at the centre of global events and drawing in the world’s governments and leaders to celebrate that success and power, all centred on Xi.

If you doubt that China’s leaders think sport matters to politics, there’s the case of tennis star Peng Shuai and her silencing for having the courage to tell the world that a former member of the CCP’s Politburo sexually abused her.

Peng understood the consequences of speaking about this in mainland China, saying: ‘Even if I’m an egg throwing myself at a rock, even if I’m a moth flying at a flame, courting my own destruction, I will still speak the truth of us.’

She’s been controlled by Chinese authorities from the moment her words made it to international media organisations, to protect the party by hiding inconvenient truths.

Which raises something more important than what any particular national government does or doesn’t do about the jarring gap between the vision of the Olympics unifying humanity and the reality of the Chinese state’s exercise of power over anyone it has within its jurisdiction.

What might athletes choose to do before, during and after the Games? There are some parallels here with the response to forced labour. Forced labour from Xinjiang has found its way into the supply chains of many major international companies, from clothing firms to big tech outfits. And consumers and customers of these companies have been using their buying power to push for change.

This ‘people power’ may turn out to be more influential on company structures, operations and plans for engaging with China than even concerted policy from groups of governments. In combination, things will move more.

Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee has done its best to minimise any connections being made between Peng and sport, and China more generally. Their way to do this is to profess a ‘person-centred’ approach—code for ‘move on, there’s nothing to see here’. So, Biden’s boycott decision is awkward news for the IOC message managers.

Despite the IOC’s efforts, it’s the athletes who matter. Tennis has some lessons for Winter Olympic sports. We’ve already seen the Women’s Tennis Association and international tennis stars speak up in support of Peng—iconic figures like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert-Lloyd and men’s world number one Novak Djokovic.

Imagine the effect of simple gestures of solidarity with the victims of abusive Chinese state power from numerous individual athletes and even some teams at and after the Beijing Games. Not much has to be done to be graphic and noteworthy in that hypercontrolled, hypersensitive environment.

Xi and other occupants of Beijing’s  Zhongnanhai leadership compound already see pictures of Winnie the Pooh as dangerous indicators of rebellion against CCP rule, and China’s 1.4 billion people are adept at reading political signs in arcane images and word choices. Like the Pooh pictures, these take off as viral memes until spotted and censored by authorities, with occasional renewed outbreaks.

A cap with a picture of an egg and a rock on it would be enough to evoke Peng’s allegations and troubles. An egg on a press conference table would do the same. A hand over an athlete’s own mouth during a press conference would bring to mind the three wise monkeys and send an unmistakable message about censorship, silencing and looking away. There are many memes that motivated minds can make, use and have spotted by audiences across the world.

How odd that pictures on caps and elliptic references to fables could so disturb the powerful.

IOC rules adopted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics discourage protests during actual events or medal ceremonies but recognise athletes’ freedom to express personal views in press conferences and on social media. Theoretically, the IOC could act against an athlete or athletes for breaches—just as it did by banning two US athletes who protested against racism at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

So, Beijing has the choice to pressure and intimidate foreign athletes to stop them from saying anything or censor them live if they do so. Some national Olympic team organisations may try to help. Beijing also has the ‘nuclear option’—the threat of arbitrary arrest is real, just as the Australian government’s travel advisory for China warns, and so is an earlier trip to the airport than an athlete planned.

But think beyond March next year, when the Olympics are over. The stories of odd Chinese government and security apparatus efforts to manage dangerous ideas during the Games will simply be out of Beijing’s control. It’s always the cover-up, not the crime, that makes a story.

And would the IOC really want to act against individual athletes over these principles and beliefs?

Maybe we’ll see principled athletes apply the Olympic values of ‘excellence, friendship and respect’ in ways we can admire and which give comfort to those under Beijing’s authoritarian control.

Maybe this will be through subtle but unmistakable references and symbols that we can all recognise and celebrate.

I’m interested to see which governments join Australia and the US. But perhaps government leaders and officials not showing up is just a precursor to something larger, more human and more creative.

Who’d want to be a censor or minder having to show Xi the latest cartoon, cap or confiscated boiled egg?