The Olympic Games in Beijing presented the Federal Council with a dilemma: Should it attend the opening on February 4th or not? Criticism would follow every decision. Should a Federal Councilor travel to Beijing, Switzerland would be criticized for taking part despite calls for a boycott because of the human rights situation. If no Federal Councilor traveled to the games, Switzerland risked angering its important trading partner China.
Pressure on the Federal Council increased
Switzerland is torn between economic interests and the defense of human rights. The human rights violations by the Chinese state, for example against the Muslim Uyghurs, are the reason for the boycott launched by the USA. The United States had therefore asked the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Winter Games. States such as Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand then joined the boycott.
This also increased the pressure on Switzerland to forgo diplomatic participation. At home, too, there were calls from human rights organizations and individual politicians for a boycott. Although there is no uniform position on the Olympic Games in the EU, numerous countries have sent a refusal to Beijing.
Great Britain, for example, has joined the political boycott, and Germany is not sending any high-ranking politicians to Beijing either, but expressly does not want to speak of a diplomatic boycott. France does not think much of a boycott and has announced its participation. There are also countries like Austria and Denmark, which argue in a similar way to Switzerland and do not want to take part because of the pandemic.
Beijing and Bern can save face
A cancellation for political reasons would have been tricky for Switzerland because China is Switzerland’s third most important trading partner. And the relationship is strained at the moment. The reason: the China strategy of the Federal Council. In this paper, Switzerland criticizes the human rights situation in China and specifically mentions the situation of the Uyghurs and Tibetans, who have come under pressure. China sharply criticized Switzerland for this at the beginning of last year.
After much hesitation, the Federal Council has now found a way out of its dilemma. He can justify the cancellation with the pandemic and argue that a trip to Beijing would not be expedient if no “substantial bilateral meetings” were possible. According to the Federal Council, meetings with Swiss athletes would not have been possible either. The pandemic should have provided a welcome excuse for the cancellation. The Federal Council left this option open two weeks ago when it announced that it in principle wanted to send someone to Beijing. But only if the current situation allows it.
In China, it is important that no one loses face in a conflict. The pandemic now allows the Federal Council to cancel its diplomatic participation in the Beijing Olympics without angering political China. Switzerland and China can both save face.
Federal house correspondent SRF
Mirjam Spreiter is the federal house correspondent at SRF. Previously, she was a correspondent in the Bern and Freiburg regions as well as an editor and reporter for the Tagesschau.