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Should Vancouver's Olympic cauldron stay dark for Beijing 2022?

Vancouver's Jack Poole Plaza has become a ground for competing political events and protests ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games in February 2022
vancouver olympic protest
Turnisa Matsedik-Qira is an ethnic Uyghur Muslim who hopes B.C. officials choose not to light the Olympic cauldron, fearing it will serve as propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.

B.C. officials should keep Downtown Vancouver’s Olympic cauldron dark during the Beijing Olympics this February, say British Columbians belonging to minority groups facing human rights abuses in China. 

If, as it appears, Canadian winter Olympians are heading to Beijing, it should be no cause for celebration, Metro Vancouver resident and activist Turnisa Matsedik-Qira argues.

Should officials decide to light the cauldron, “it means for the Uyghurs and all human beings that they support genocide,” says Matsedik-Qira. “Boycotting means a lot.” 

On Monday, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games due to ongoing human rights abuses, most notably the alleged acts of genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the disputed territory of East Turkistan, or the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Last February, genocide against Uyghurs was unanimously recognized by Canada’s House of Commons (with the federal cabinet abstaining). 

On Wednesday, Canada followed America, Australia and the United Kingdom in the boycott, which means no government official will attend the Olympics as a representative. Athletes, however, intend to participate.

“We have a lot of testimony; very dependable resources show genocide is happening but still people celebrate the upcoming Beijing Olympics,” says Matsedik-Qira.

As such, she contends Vancouver’s Olympic cauldron in downtown should remain dark, unlike during most Games since the city’s own in 2010.

Otherwise, lighting the cauldron as an outward show of support for athletes, would be to dismiss the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) growing range of abuses committed against minority groups and dissidents, if not the hundreds of millions of people who fall under the grip of authoritarianism, critics such as Matsedik-Qira say.

Matsedik-Qira is an ethnic Uyghur born in Hotan, East Turkistan who immigrated to Canada as a skilled worker in 2006. She says her people have always faced repression but the past decade conditions have worsened; she is no longer able to communicate with her brothers, who may or may not be detained in internment camps, which the Chinese government does not deny but justifies as educational facilities to combat terrorist ideologies that supposedly threaten a valuable energy corridor. 

Her last visit to her native home was in 2014, when she witnessed it become illegal for ethnic Chinese to greet Uyghurs in their own language. The hospital nurse and mother of two now spends her spare days protesting outside China’s Granville Street compound.

Tensions are high these days, says Matsedik-Qira. This week, she and her small but dedicated group were spat at and called “dirty words” by an ethnic Chinese person driving a delivery van while stopped at a nearby intersection. She says Vancouver police are investigating the incident.

Who's in charge of lighting the cauldron?

The decision to light the cauldron ultimately rests with Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Melanie Mark. She is the person in charge of the B.C. Pavilion Corporation (PavCo), the provincial Crown corporation in charge of the Vancouver Convention Centre, where the cauldron sits in Jack Poole Plaza.

The only post-2010 Olympics the cauldron has not been lit for is the 2012 Summer Games, for reasons unclear. However, the cauldron has been lit for the past four Olympic Games (Sochi 2014, Rio 2016, PyeongChang 2018 and Tokyo 2021), with sponsorship from FortisBC, which paid thousands of dollars for the technical and natural gas costs.

The cauldron was built by FortisBC in 2010 through a legacy investment and partnership with the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committees. 

Usually, officials tout the lighting as a celebration of the athletes. A plaque next to the cauldron reads: “The flame symbolizes the values that lie at the heart of the Games and Canadians — peace, friendship and respect.”

FortisBC told Glacier Media it has not yet considered sponsoring the flame and would have to take direction from PavCo at any rate.

Asked for an update on such as decision, PavCo told Glacier Media: “We are currently considering the situation surrounding the 2022 Games and working with a range of partners including the Canadian Olympic Committee to ensure that we are celebrating the athletes appropriately. We will keep you apprised of the plans as they are announced.”

Glacier Media asked Mark if she supported lighting the cauldron for Beijing 2022.

“B.C. supports the federal government’s decision, in concert with our allies to stand up for human rights around the world,” stated her ministry’s spokesperson.

“Our focus is on supporting the athletes who have worked their entire lives to get to this moment. Historically, the Olympic cauldron in Jack Poole Plaza has been lit to celebrate the Olympic athletes. PavCo and the province of B.C. are working with a range of partners including the federal government and the Canadian Olympic Committee to determine next steps to ensure that we are celebrating our athletes appropriately this year.”

'Symbolism is better than nothing,' says advocate

This fall, the cauldron’s plaza has not been immune to the apolitical stance Chinese officials are touting for the upcoming Games. The plaza has indeed become a ground for competing interests — those associated with the Chinese Communist Party and pro-democracy activists.

It was Oct. 2 when Minister of State for Trade George Chow attended the plaza for an Olympic-styled celebration sponsored by Huawei and the Richmond-based Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, which publicly denounces any Olympic boycott.

On Nov. 21, members of Vancouver’s Hong Kong pro-democracy movement protested at the plaza alongside Tibetans and Uyghurs, to denounce what they dub as the “Genocide Games.”

Fenella Sung, a core member of Vancouver-based advocacy group Canadian Friends for Hong Kong, also supports keeping the cauldron dark and speculates pro-Beijing groups could lobby to light the cauldron and may even pitch sponsorship. 

“Even if it’s not taxpayers’ money, it’s still not right because it’s a public facility. And it’s a gesture that signifies our government’s commitment.”

Sung says if athletes are going to compete, then not giving the CCP a platform, such as with a cauldron lighting, is the least Canadians can do.

“People should remember it is just a symbolic gesture. We need to do more. Symbolism is better than nothing though, but we can still keep demanding our federal representatives to do more,” says Sung.

She adds Canadians can choose not to watch the Games, which could hit sponsors in the pocketbook. As well, Sung calls on Canadians to avoid buying made-in-China products. 

“It is something we can commit ourselves to on an individual basis.”

Survey says...

The matter of alleged CCP abuses is not divisive in Canada. The vast majority of Canadians (84%) hold an unfavourable view of China, according to Angus Reid polling published Dec. 7. 

And a boycott has the support of most Canadians.

This month, when Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians, support for a full boycott of Beijing 2022 stood at 56% across the country. That figure rises to 59% among British Columbians.

A significant proportion of Canadians (70%) express concerns about the health and safety of Canadian athletes who participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics. 

The Canadian Olympic Committee did not respond to Glacier Media for comment on athlete safety. Glacier Media wanted to know the plan if an athlete is assaulted or sexually assaulted; are they to go to Beijing police or proceed home? Are athletes being directed to not speak about the human rights?

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly told national media Thursday the Canadian team is discussing security measures during the Games.

As for Sung’s suggestion to boycott watching the Olympics and refrain from buying Chinese consumer goods, there appears to be significant support, according to Research Co.: “Only 32% of Canadians say they never refrain from buying products manufactured in China, with two-thirds of residents (68%) saying they avoid purchasing Chinese goods “all the time” (15%), “most of the time” (20%) or “some of the time” (33%).”

As well, 45% of Canadians “say they will make a conscious effort to refrain from watching the Games.”