Opinion: The world once said “Never again”. As the Olympic Games approach in China, we seem to have forgotten

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China, says Charles Lewis, has no respect for human rights.FABRIZIO BENSCH/Reuters

Charles Lewis is a former National Post editor and reporter.

I will not watch the Beijing Olympics.

It won’t change anything for anyone but me. But I simply cannot participate in even watching a glamorous athletic competition in a country where ethnic minority groups would be imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed. Watching a skiing event knowing that there are dozens of people in concentration camps in that same country would be farcical.

China, like other totalitarian regimes that have gone before it, has no respect for human rights – especially among those who should somehow challenge their rulers, even simply to because of their ethnicity or religion.

This is exactly what China has done to many predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, especially the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. But somehow, countries around the world decided that the mistreatment of these people was not worth sending a message of rebuke through a meaningful boycott of the Games. This is unconscionable – and it is as if we had learned nothing from a similar scenario 86 years ago.

In the years leading up to the Berlin Games in 1936, Germany focused on what it called “the Jewish question”. This meant a massive anti-Semitic campaign that involved stripping Jews of their citizenship, expelling them from most professions, and closing schools to young Jewish boys and girls. Even Jewish men who had fought for Germany in World War I were given no quarter. There were rules about when Jews could shop, when they were allowed to take public transportation, and even if they could own pets. There were also credible reports of anti-Jewish violence. To top it off, the infamous Dachau concentration camp had been operational for three years at the time of the opening ceremonies.

But few voices have called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics. The main argument in favor of sending athletes and delegations to the Olympics was that sport and politics should never mix. Plus, the defenders said, it would be unfair to the athletes, who had worked so hard.

Prior to the Games, the Nazis ordered the removal of anti-Jewish posters and other visible signs of their hatred of Jews. Those who visited Germany began to believe that the complaints they heard about the treatment of Jews were more hype than reality.

Germany in 1936 was still in the early stages of what was to be the Holocaust, so it was hard to imagine how badly things would turn out. For German Jews, however, it was already a time of apprehension after years of relentless harassment.

Today, as Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim groups suffer, no one can say that this situation is not dangerous. This time we know too much.

Take this recent missive from the Council of Foreign Relations: “The Chinese government has imprisoned more than a million people since 2017 and subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor and forced sterilizations. An opinion from Amnesty International was equally stark: “The Chinese government appears to be trying to eliminate religious beliefs and aspects of cultural identity to enforce political loyalty.

And yet, countries continue to send their athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.

Imagine being a Uyghur who has lost everything, who is treated like a criminal and worse – only to find that the world doesn’t care.

Imagine how bitterly they would laugh when they learned that some countries, like Canada, were “protesting” by not sending their diplomats to the Games. “Low” is a far cry from describing this approach.

Christians who refused to cede their religious authority to the state also suffered in China, although less harshly. Many Protestant house churches have seen their pastors and flock persecuted simply for praying and reading the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, had to strike a deal in 2018 that gave Beijing a say in the appointment of bishops. That might not seem like much, unless you’re a devout Catholic who thinks the state – any state – shouldn’t have a say in how your church is run.

The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist. The government is deeply paranoid that its authority may be undermined by a competing ideology or belief system. And how he suppressed Christians and allegedly committed acts of genocide against Muslims simply cannot be ignored.

In fact, we promised we wouldn’t. After the Second World War, the expression Nie Wieder – never again – was heard across the western world. Never again, we said, would the world turn its eyes away from barbarism such as the Holocaust and other forms of death and cruelty.

But now, Nie Wieder has become conditional. Never again – unless, apparently, it means stopping skiing competitions and hockey games.


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