On Monday, the White House confirmed reports that it was instituting a diplomatic boycott on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
“The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. She added, “The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” but the Biden administration “will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”
“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang,” Psaki concluded. “And we simply can’t do that.”
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called accusations of genocide in Xinjiang “the biggest lie of the century.”
“The US practice gravely violates the principle of political neutrality enshrined in the Olympic Charter,” Zhao said. “…China deplores and firmly opposes to the remarks of the US side and has lodged stern representations with the US and will respond with firm countermeasures.”
When asked for details on the “countermeasures,” Zhao replied, “The US will pay a price for its erroneous actions. You may wait and see.”
He also emphasized that “foreign athletes including a great number of American athletes are eager to come to China for the Games.” Indeed, the Biden administration’s decision does not amount to a full boycott, despite calls from many human rights activists for the United States to also ban its athletes from participating.
Psaki said the Biden administration “believe[s] U.S. athletes — people who have been training, giving up a lot of blood, sweat, and tears preparing for these Olympics — should be able to go and compete.”
Still, a diplomatic boycott is a strong signal, and an option that hasn’t been pursued in 40 years. While then-President Barack Obama did not attend the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his administration did send an official delegation, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, then-U.S. President George W. Bush attended himself, despite criticisms over China’s human rights record. In fact, the United States has sent an official delegation to every Olympics since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was the target of a full U.S. boycott – including athletes.
In Tuesday’s press conference, Zhao pointedly noted that the U.S. had not actually been invited to send an official delegation. Earlier reports had suggested Xi would invite Biden to attend the Olympics, but that didn’t pan out – Psaki confirmed that Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had not discussed the Olympics at all during their virtual meeting on November 16. It’s possible Xi withheld the invitation simply because he knew it would be rejected, but it’s also an open question how receptive China will be to hosting foreign delegations at all during the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Unlike many other countries, China continues to pursue a zero COVID policy, and requires strict quarantine procedures for international visitors. Beijing will waive this policy for vaccinated athletes, but they will be restricted to the “closed-loop” system of the Games and “will be allowed to move only between Games-related venues for training, competitions and work.” All participants, vaccinated or not, “will be subject to daily testing” for COVID-19.
Given the circumstances, it’s not clear whether China even wants the customary swarm of foreign dignitaries to converge on Beijing for the Olympics. China hasn’t hosted many delegations from overseas since the start of the pandemic, nor have its top leaders been traveling abroad. Instead, top-level diplomacy is being conducted via video link (as with the Biden-Xi summit, as well as the China-ASEAN Special Summit in November).
One guest is confirmed for Beijing 2022, though: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote this week on a bill to punish China for pushing Uyghurs into forced labor. The bill would levy additional sanctions on Chinese officials as well as barring the import of goods from Xinjiang, unless Customs and Border Protection determines that the goods were not manufactured by convict labor or forced labor.” A previous version of the bill passed in the House by a vote of 406-3 in September 2020, but failed to make progress in the Senate. The version currently under consideration has already passed the Senate; passage in the House would leave just a signature from Biden to make it into law.