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Africa and the decision to not boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics

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Only a few African countries, including Eritrea, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco and Nigeria, are taking part in the Winter Games in Beijing. Photo: AFP

African countries have ignored Washington’s call for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, instead expressing support for China’s hosting of the Games and warning that the event should not be a platform for politics.

In the last week, Mali, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe have been among the countries on the continent that said the Games would help bring people together.

Staunch ally Zimbabwe, which is not sending a team to compete, said the Games were a chance to “unite the world”.

“I believe that sport and politics don’t mix,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Zimbabwe Olympic Committee president Thabani Gonye as saying.

Botsang Tshenyego, president of the Botswana National Olympic Committee, also weighed in, saying: “We all agree that sport is not a platform for politics.”

That support is on top of the backing China received at the November’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, Senegal, when African countries said they “were committed to promoting the sustained and sound development of the Olympic Movement and opposed the politicisation of sports”.

The United States is leading a group of allies including Australia, Britain and Canada, that will not be sending government officials or diplomats to the Games on the grounds of “human rights issues”, particularly alleged abuses against the Uygur community in Xinjiang – allegations Beijing rejects.

Nevertheless, athletes from those countries are still allowed to compete when the event gets under way on February 4.

Responding to the boycott, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that a handful of Western countries led by the US did not represent the international community.

“Their acts will be rejected by people in all countries including athletes participating in the Beijing Winter Olympics,” he said.

The ministry said that international organisations including the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee as well as people from many countries “have all said that they support and look forward to the Games and reject politicising sports”.

David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the boycott would probably not have an impact on any human rights issues in China, but it did signal the concerns of these governments about the situation in China.

“The reaction of China, including the solicitation of support from African countries, also underscores how sensitive Beijing is to criticism of any kind,” Shinn said.

Only a few African countries, including Eritrea, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco and Nigeria, are taking part in the Winter Games, given that Africa is mostly warm throughout the year.

Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with expertise in Chinese sports and the Olympic Games, said those African countries that did attend would send only a few athletes.

“So, it is easy for African nations to declare their support for the Beijing 2022 Olympics as a matter of formality,” Brownell said.

“They could not join the US-led ‘diplomatic boycott’ if they were not planning to send a delegation in the first place.”

Brownell said that at present, “President Xi Jinping seems to be determined to chart a path for China in foreign affairs in which it does not yield to the West on issues that it has long considered a matter of fundamental principles of national interest”.

“The leadership is very adamant that other countries should not interfere in its ‘internal affairs’, which includes its treatment of the Uygurs in Xinjiang as well as its actions in Hong Kong and toward Taiwan,” she said, adding that she doubted the boycott would bring change.

“The most that it will do is to raise awareness of issues among the general public as well as politicians outside China, and to help Chinese leaders understand how the outside world sees China – or, at least, the developed West, which is the main source of the pressure.

“This might lead to more meaningful dialogues between China and the West, and perhaps more self-reflection inside China in the future.”

John Calabrese, head of the Middle East-Asia Project at American University in Washington, said Beijing’s diplomacy was focused sharply on trying to burnish and preserve China’s reputation as a responsible, benign actor and on winning adherents to its cardinal principle of non-interference in domestic affairs.

He said the key to advancing this position had been reciprocity, with China forgoing any public criticism of its own or other government’s abuses and opposing or seeking to dilute sanctions against them in exchange for their silence regarding Chinese mistreatment of its citizens.

“China’s financial muscle creates additional incentives for developing countries, in particular, to remain silent, even in the absence of an explicit quid pro quo,” Calabrese said.

Furthermore, as many developing countries’ governance systems, including in Sub-Saharan Africa, were themselves “less than democratic”, there was little inclination for them to step forward on human rights issues, he said.

For instance, China last week vetoed an attempt by France to have the UN Security Council back the decision by the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to impose economic sanctions on Mali.

This is after coup leaders postponed elections to December 2025 instead of next month as originally agreed. France, the United States and the European Union backed Ecowas’ decision.

Last week Mali said it supported China’s “commitment and determination to organise the Winter Olympics” and that political issues must be set aside to “allow athletes to thrive in a healthy environment by competing in fair play”.