Do you remember the story of Kelsang Namtso? It’s worth retelling as China tries to stop the diplomatic boycott of its Winter Olympics.
Namtso was a young Tibetan nun. She had become one against her parents’ wishes, and against their wishes she set off from their farm to India, to meet the Dalai Lama.
The year was 2006 and she was 17. She took the high road – an ancient trading route that winds up to the Nangpa La pass at 19,000 feet. Namtso was one of a group of about 70 Tibetans who’d been told the journey would take 22 hours. It took 12 days of walking just to reach the pass. By that time the group was starving and hypothermic. None was properly equipped for glaciers or snow and many were close to collapse.
The pass marks the border between China and Nepal where it skirts Cho Oyu, the second-most popular 8,000 metre mountain for climbers after Everest. As the group approached the border, Chinese guards near the Cho Oyu base camp opened fire with high-powered rifles from a distance of several hundred yards.
Namtso was hit in the stomach. She fell and died next to the tracks the group had made through the snow. Chinese officials tried to claim the guards shot in self-defence but a Romanian climber, Sergiu Matei, filmed it all and even voiced live commentary: “They are shooting them like dogs.”
Matei’s footage went round the world, but many didn’t hear the details of the murder on the pass until Richard Gere, the actor, recounted them at a Berlin cinema festival two years later. He ended his account with an appeal to think of Tibet with every mention of China: “‘China’. Think Tibet,” he said. “This jewel, this power of love, compassion and forgiveness.”
Thirteen years on, China’s control of Tibet has solidified. The same is true of Xinjiang and Hong Kong and will be true of Taiwan if the free world isn’t resolute.
China’s familiar response – that these are its territories and what it does in them is no one else’s business – is morally, legally and practically untenable: morally because there are echoes of pre-war Germany in the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and no one believes the outside world should have paid less attention to Kristallnacht; legally because Beijing signed a treaty to preserve “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong until 2049, and violates it every day; and practically because contrary to the Chinese pretence, Taiwan is an independent country on which the rest of the world happens to depend for microprocessors. The world needs Taiwanese independence, quite apart from the fact that Taiwan needs and deserves the world’s protection.
These are the new Tibets. In addition, Xi Jinping’s China steals intellectual property, shoots and jails dissidents, expels foreign journalists, conducts mass cyber-espionage, derails investigations of the origins of Covid – and refuses to say where Peng Shuai, the former Chinese women’s tennis No. 1, is being held or who is running her life.
You don’t have to be a knee-jerk Sinophobe to acknowledge these realities. Rather than ignore them, this week President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of February’s Beijing Winter Olympics. Canada, Australia and the UK have joined it. New Zealand won’t send VIPs either. They’ll all still send athletes, but China is angry nonetheless. A foreign ministry spokesman said the boycotters would “pay a price”.
Perhaps. Apple and Tesla may worry that Beijing will make life tougher for their Chinese factories. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, may worry that Beijing will back-peddle on its Cop26 commitments. And of course the boycott might not “work”.
History’s most compelling verdict on President Carter’s full boycott of the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics is that it failed to change Soviet behaviour. Carter insisted on it because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but Russian troops were still there nine years later. This wasn’t because boycotts of autocratic states are necessarily powerless, though. It was because the behaviour of autocratic states is hard to change however you go about it.
Leverage is scarce; don’t waste it.
“Since international sports are widely followed even in very closed dictatorships, boycotting events is a way of communicating directly to the citizens of such countries,” says the political scientist Daniel Treisman. “The dictator can try to spin the explanation, but it’s hard to completely cover up. In the long run—especially if there’s already domestic pressure for liberalization and if boycotts are combined with other sanctions—they can at least marginally weaken the regime.”
At an editorial conference in 2008 I tried arguing for a full boycott of the Beijing summer Games on roughly this basis. The regime had been caught shooting people in the Himalayas and here was a powerful way of saying this was not acceptable. No dice. The editorial I ended up writing was in favour of “engagement”.
There wasn’t much engagement to be had by confronting the Chinese head-on over the fate of Kelsang Namtso. In meetings with Chinese officials that year the mere mention of the murder on the pass shut down the conversation. So how is the more emollient sort of engagement working out?
The Beijing games were a splendid success, at least on their own no-face-unsmiling terms. But if the West had little leverage over China then, it has less now.
Xi has harnessed technologies that were meant to set people free to enslave and surveil them instead. His military build-up in the Pacific makes the unthinkable plausible. Taiwan could simply be gobbled up, with America looking the other way like a retriever choosing not to tangle with a mastiff.
A diplomatic boycott is the least that countries of conscience should be announcing. France has said it won’t. It hosts the next summer Games and seems to set great store by cordial torch handovers. Norway has said it won’t either. It’s the winningest winter Games nation ever and seems to want even more medals. Fair enough, up to a point. But as its langlaufers glide over their snow they should spare a thought for Kelsang Namtso’s last steps through hers.
With human rights groups demanding a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, we look back to Moscow 1980, and ask what’s the lesson of the most notorious Olympic boycott in modern times?
Hundreds of athletes didn’t get the chance to compete in the 1980 Olympics, their dreams crushed under the wheel of global politics. This is what it meant then – and means now
Should the sporting world just turn a blind eye to Chinese politics? We ask the experts.