Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will attend the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, breaking ranks with other EU members ahead of an expected non-binding resolution in the European Parliament calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Games because of alleged human rights abuses in China.
In a phone call with Xi Jinping on Wednesday, Mitsotakis accepted the Chinese leader’s invitation to attend the 2022 Games, according to the official readout from Athens. A statement from China’s foreign ministry said the two leaders also discussed strengthening ties between China and the EU.
Xi said China hoped to deepen cooperation with central and eastern European countries through the Belt and Road Initiative and delivered a similar message to Czech President Milos Zeman in a separate phone call on Thursday. The conversations followed Lithuania’s exit from the 17+1 grouping of China and countries in the region, citing poorer than expected trade benefits.
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The European Parliament is set to vote on Thursday on the resolution calling for EU institutions and member states to “decline invitations for government representatives and diplomats to attend, unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verified improvement” in its human rights record, according to a draft of the motion seen by the South China Morning Post.
Greece, which has struggled with a decades-long debt crisis, has notably embraced relations with China in recent years, despite growing scepticism among EU states towards Beijing.
This has included an active Greek role in Xi’s signature belt and road infrastructure scheme which has placed Piraeus – said to be the oldest port in Europe – under the control of China’s state-owned shipping giant Cosco. In 2017, Greece also blocked an EU statement at the UN criticising China for its human rights record.
But concerns over human rights in China – including its alleged repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and political crackdown in Hong Kong – have increasingly come to the fore in Europe, with political momentum building for punitive actions such as a boycott of the Winter Games, set to run from February 4-20 in Beijing.
In March, the EU sanctioned Chinese officials over “serious human rights violations” linked to China’s detention of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang – the first sanctions it has placed on China since Beijing’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
China responded with counter-sanctions on 10 European individuals and four entities, sparking anger among EU member states and leading to the European Parliament’s suspension of a landmark investment deal between the two sides.
Xi spoke with his German counterpart Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday in support of the frozen investment agreement, but the two European leaders expressed “serious concerns about the human rights situation in China” during the call, according to readouts from Beijing and Paris.
A number of countries – including the US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands – have described China’s actions in Xinjiang as amounting to genocide, a label that Beijing has protested vociferously. No government has yet confirmed it will not send diplomatic representatives to next year’s Games. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated in May that Washington would be “talking to allies and partners about their views on the Olympics” in the months ahead.
Xi raised the Winter Olympics in a call with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto in June, according to China’s foreign ministry statements. But while the Chinese read-out quoted Niinisto as saying the country would “actively participate” in the games, the Finnish official statement on the call did not mention the Olympics as a topic in their conversation.
Some leaders have publicly expressed unease with the idea of a boycott of the Winter Olympics, or the lesser version of a diplomatic boycott.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his country’s parliament on Wednesday that while Britain had “led the world in condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang and putting sanctions on those responsible”, he was “instinctively, and always have been, against sporting boycotts”.
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