Canada has joined the United States, the U.K. and Australia in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics on Wednesday, adding its voice to the chorus of countries taking a stand against China’s human rights violations ahead of the global competition.
But the voices most intimately impacted by China’s human rights abuses say that while it’s a “positive step,” it’s “not enough.”
“Active genocide is taking place,” said Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur Canadian activist.
Global Affairs has acknowledged “mounting evidence” suggests the Uyghur ethnic group has been facing “systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities” in the Xinjiang region.
China has also cracked down on dissident voices in Hong Kong, and is alleged to be forcing Tibetans into a sort of residential school system designed to strip them of their culture.
The laundry list of alleged human rights violations has culminated in this latest call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics, which are slated to take place in China next year.
Here’s what you need to know about that push.
Why is there a boycott of the Beijing Olympics?
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have become a flashpoint in the escalating global tensions that surround the country’s widespread human rights violations.
The United States, the U.K., and Australia all announced this week to not send any diplomats to the country alongside their Olympic athletes. Canada followed suit on Wednesday.
Countries refused, however, to escalate this to a full boycott of the event.
Speaking to reporters after the boycott announcement on Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly explained that athletes deserve the opportunity to compete.
“Our athletes have worked extremely hard to get there…and it’s just normal for them to have the chance to really go ahead and compete in the Olympic games,” Joly said.
“This is a situation that needs to be dealt (with) diplomatically.”
But Tohti said Canada and other countries should do “whatever is necessary to fully boycott” the Olympics, including by “not even sending one single athlete to China.”
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Still, if they do go, Tohti says he hopes athletes use their platform to help.
“If our athletes…go there, I wish them all the best and I wish that they can find a way to raise their voice and…stand up against the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, and be a flag of human rights and human dignity,” he said.
Read more: ‘We’re coming to get you’: China’s critics facing threats, retaliation for activism in Canada
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to use the Winter Olympics to “portray China as a superpower” and “display all the progress they have made on the technological front,” according to former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques.
But, he warned, “we have learned a lot about the dark side of China in the last few years.”
“If we we are concerned about what’s going on in China and the behaviour of China on the international stage, we have no choice,” Saint-Jacques said.
“We have to take a stand.”
What is China doing to the Uyghurs?
Tohti moved to Canada from China in 1991.
Eventually, he became vocal about the situation he had left behind. Tohti told politicians and reporters about the mass detention and abuse of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, publicly calling it a genocide and alleging the existence of concentration camps.
Then, Tohti was cut off from his family — including, in 2016, his mother and seven siblings.
In July 2019, Tohti was just hours away from speaking publicly to politicians about the Chinese government’s horrific abuse of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang when he received a message on Twitter:
“Your f—ing mother is dead,” it read.
To this day, he still doesn’t know what happened to her.
“I don’t know, even, (if) my mother is alive or otherwise, and my seven siblings, and no more than 38 extended family members, (I don’t know) their fate — whether they are in concentration camps or labour camps or whether they are in prison,” Tohti said.
“Because China’s government (has) incarcerated millions of people in concentration camps, or in prison with lengthy sentences, just because they have family ties with people abroad.”
Earlier this year, a joint statement was released by the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States Secretary of State. In the statement, the ministers slammed China’s treatment of the Uyghur population.
“The evidence, including from the Chinese Government’s own documents, satellite imagery, and eyewitness testimony is overwhelming,” the statement read.
“China’s extensive program of repression includes severe restrictions on religious freedoms, the use of forced labour, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilisations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage.”
What's happening to the Tibetans?
It isn’t only the Uyghurs that the Chinese government is cracking down on.
Tibet has been under China’s occupation since the 1950s. China’s military invaded and took over the land, cracking down on any pushback from the Tibetans and forcing their leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India. In the years since, Tibetan culture has been eroded and any pursuit of Tibetan liberation has been met with prison time, violence and repression.
China, meanwhile, insists the Tibetans are happy and prosperous — but they won’t allow Western journalists or politicians to enter the area and make that determination for themselves.
Tibetans had been engaging in massive protests in China ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At that time, however, countries took a very different approach to the games. Then-U.S. president George W. Bush even attended the games in person.
China upped its crackdown on the Tibetans shortly after — and Tibetans began to set themselves on fire as a form of protest.
“They didn’t choose violence towards Chinese people, the Chinese government, they rather chose to harm themselves so that the world would pay attention to what’s happening in their homeland,” said Sherap Therchin, the executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee.
“But unfortunately, nothing happened.”
The lack of international action led China to “increase” the intensity of their crackdown on the Tibetans, Therchin said, adding that the country took the global inaction as a sign of “encouragement.”
“So now that the world has finally taken…some level of action on the upcoming Winter Olympics, we would like to remind the world about what happened in Tibet after Beijing in 2008. so that it doesn’t happen again after the 2022 Winter Olympics,” he said.
Hong Kong and detained Canadians
On top these atrocities, China has been crushing internal dissent — including in Hong Kong.
Beijing effectively ended Hong Kong people’s greatest push yet for democracy with the imposition last year of a sweeping national security law to punish anything it deems as subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
China then followed through with radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system and political structure, reducing democratic participation and introducing a vetting and screening mechanism that ensures all politicians and those who aspire to public office are “patriotic.”
China has also engaged in coercive actions with other countries. The Chinese government arbitrarily detained two Canadians — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — who have since been released, in what was widely viewed as a hostage-taking.
Spavor and Kovrig, often referred to as the Two Michaels, were detained in China from December 2018 to September 2021. They were thrown in Chinese jail just 10 days after Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
The two men’s freedom came just hours after Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou secured a deal with U.S. prosecutors to drop the charges against her — and the extradition order that had been keeping her in Canada since December 2018.
Experts said it was clear the two cases were intimately intertwined, and that Meng’s deal was clearly a catalyst for the freeing of Spavor and Kovrig.
“I think in the world’s mind, there’s no doubt that the two arrests are related and the releases are related,” said Wei Cui, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, speaking to Global News when Spavor and Kovrig were released.
As well, the regime’s disregard and aggression towards the rules-based international order have sharpened concerns among a growing number of countries about the need to come together to challenge Beijing’s conduct publicly.
Added into the mix are international fears for the well-being of tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view last month after she alleged that a high-ranking Chinese official had sexually assaulted her.
Concerns about her safety have since led the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend tournaments in China.
Democracy itself could be at stake: ambassador
Both Tohti and Therchin want to see a full boycott of the Olympics — and they’re telling Canadians at home that they shouldn’t watch the event, either.
“At the individual level, I think we all have some responsibility,” Therchin said.
“If we are aware of what’s happening in China under the leadership of the forever President Xi Jinping…for our own conscience, I think it’s good idea for individuals to not watch Olympics in person or on TV or in any form.”
“We have to stand up tall against genocide and the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity,” he said.
Read more: U.S. ambassador to Canada expects countries to be ‘aligned’ over Beijing Olympics boycott
Saint-Jacques warned of dire consequences if China doesn’t face pushback over its human rights violations.
“If we don’t do anything well, it means that we are acquiescing to this behaviour and we are accepting China’s approach,” he said.
Until a few years ago, most Western countries were willing to “give the benefit of the doubt” to China, according to Saint-Jacques.
“We have to realize that in fact, things have moved backward very rapidly since Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012,” he said.
“We have seen more arrests of lawyers defending human rights…(and) the installation of the social credit system that penalized citizens if they dare criticize the the regime…and on top of that, we know that China does not hesitate to use coercive measures like hostage diplomacy or very punitive trade tariffs to penalize you, to punish you, if you don’t obey its orders.”
These policies can’t become normalized, the former ambassador said.
“If we believe in democracy, if we are concerned about, in fact, the erosion going on around the world of democracy and the rise of an authoritarian regime,” Saint Jacques said, “I think we have to take a stand.”
— with files from Reuters and Global News’ Amanda Connolly