The Liberal Democrats have warned China against “international bullying” after a call by UK MPs for countries to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics was met by a warning of potential sanctions.
Last week, Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, joined with the Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant in demanding that the government and the British Olympic Association act over the mass repression of the Muslim Uighur population in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, which campaigners say constitutes genocide.
The editor of China’s state-run Global Times newspaper responded by saying countries who boycotted the Games could face consequences.
“Boycotting 2022 Beijing Winter Games, an unpopular idea, won’t receive wide support,” Hu Xijin tweeted. “IOC [International Olympic Commission] and athletes will both oppose it, and China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call.”
While Hu is an editor rather than an official, China often uses state-run media to push government messages.
In a letter to China’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Chen Wen – the longtime ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, is departing, and his successor is not yet in place – Davey said he was seeking “an urgent response” to Hu’s claims in the tweet.
“Such an action would be an act of international bullying, and immensely damaging to China’s standing in the world,” Davey wrote. “I urge you to clarify immediately the position of the Chinese government on this sanctions threat.”
In the letter, Davey reiterated his call for a boycott, saying the evidence of genocide against Uighur people “is now overwhelming”.
He said: “It is why I believe Britain and our athletes must not take part in the Winter Olympics in China. If we did, knowing what we know, our presence would be seen as cover for a Chinese government committing genocide against its own people.
“No country wants to pull their athletes out of such major international sporting occasions, but we cannot compromise when it comes to crimes of this nature.”
There is increasing evidence and testimony of mass abuses against Uighur people by the Chinese state, including large-scale internment in camps, forced labour, religious repression, and reports of systematic rape and mandatory sterilisation.
The UK has so far stopped short of calling events in Xinjiang genocide – and has blocked parliamentary efforts to bar trade deals with countries accused of it – although Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has said they amount to torture.
Liu, the outgoing Chinese ambassador, achieved wider prominence in the UK last year when, shown footage of shackled prisoners being herded on to trains in Xinjiang, he told the BBC that the images did not prove any mistreatment.