The United States has announced it will stage a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s “egregious” rights abuses, a move the Chinese government has said would be met with “resolute countermeasures”.
The White House on Monday said the US would not send an official delegation to the games in protest against Chinese human rights abuses, including Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs in its western Xinjiang region.
“The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the [People’s Republic of China’s] ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, and other human rights abuses,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
“US 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 – and we simply can’t do that,” she said.
Psaki added that the diplomatic boycott, which has been encouraged by some members of the US Congress for months, would not affect the attendance of American athletes, who have the “full support” of the Biden administration.
The move comes just days before US President Joe Biden will host a virtual “Summit for Democracy” gathering of leaders and civil society actors from more than 100 countries on Thursday and Friday.
The administration has said that Biden intends to use the gathering “to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad”.
The Chinese embassy in Washington described the US boycott as “political manipulation” later on Monday, stressing that the decision would not affect the Olympics.
“No invitation has been extended to US politicians whatsoever, so this ‘diplomatic boycott’ simply comes out of nowhere,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told the Reuters news agency in an emailed statement.
“Such a pretentious act is only a political manipulation and a grave distortion of the spirit of the Olympic Charter,” he said.
Before the announcement, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said those calling for a boycott are “grandstanding” and should stop “so as not to affect the dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States in important areas”.
“If the US insists in wilfully clinging to its course, China will take resolute countermeasures,” Zhao Lijian said during a news briefing, without elaborating on what those countermeasures could include.
The US-China relationship has been strained in recent years over issues including Taiwan, Hong Kong and China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, but Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed their close ties during a virtual call last month.
Biden urged better and more “honest” communication with China after the call, while Xi said the rivals must work more closely together. “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation,” Xi said.
Einar Tangen, a political analyst in Beijing, was dismissive of the US boycott.
“It will accomplish nothing except breeding bad blood between two nations who need to come together to deal with the world’s problems,” he told Al Jazeera.
China has rejected international criticism and sanctions over the situation in Xinjiang, where the United Nations and rights groups believe at least one million Uighurs and members of other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated.
The US State Department said in March that China was committing “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. The Chinese government denies wrongdoing, however, saying it has set up vocational training centres to combat “extremism”.
Sophie Richardson, China director at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, called the US move on Monday a “crucial step” towards challenging China’s human rights abuses against the Uighurs.
“But this shouldn’t be the only action,” Richardson wrote on Twitter. “The US should now redouble efforts with like-minded governments to investigate and map out pathways to accountability for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors.”
US lawmakers who have been pushing Biden to speak out against China’s human rights record also welcomed the move, with Senator Bob Menendez calling on “other allies and partners that share our values to join with the United States in this diplomatic boycott”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration has been consulting with allies and partners on a “shared approach” to the Beijing Games in light of their concerns.
Stefano Sannino, chief of the European Union’s diplomatic service, said on Friday after meetings with US officials in Washington that it was important to keep up pressure on China over abuses in Xinjiang, but that any boycott was up to individual member states, not common EU foreign policy.
IOC ‘respects’ decision
Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire, said the US decision was “significant because of the United States’ tradition of using the Olympics to make a political expression”.
But McCann added it was unclear whether the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics would make a huge difference if American athletes were still participating.
“It’s not the same as the athletes staying home, but on the other hand, the White House wanted to ensure that the athletes who have spent a lot of time training are still getting a chance to play. So it’s sort of a compromise decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that it respected the US government’s decision on Monday.
“The presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects,” an IOC spokesperson told the AFP news agency.
Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held from February 4 to 20 in a “closed loop” bubble because of COVID-19 restrictions.
On Tuesday, New Zealand announced it would not be sending diplomatic representatives at a ministerial level to the event, citing COVID-19.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said the move was not due to the US decision.
“There was a range of factors but mostly to do with COVID, and the fact that the logistics of travel and so on around COVID are not conducive to that kind of trip,” he said in response to a question in parliament, adding that New Zealand’s decision was communicated to China in October.
He emphasised that New Zealand had raised its human rights’ concerns with China previously.