American athletes will still be able to compete in the Winter Games, but the diplomatic boycott is a slap at China for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
WASHINGTON — The United States will not send government officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, a slap at China for human rights abuses.
The diplomatic boycott allows American athletes to compete, but it is seen as an affront and one of President Biden’s most public condemnations of Beijing. China said it would respond with “resolute countermeasures.”
Pressure has been building for months from members of Congress in both parties to hold China accountable for abuses of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Those calls only intensified after the disappearance from public life of the tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said administration officials did not believe it was appropriate to send a delegation of U.S. officials to the Games in February after “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang.
“We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games,” Ms. Psaki said.
Mr. Biden had raised the possibility of not sending the American delegation after he held a virtual meeting last month with China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
That conversation was meant to cool the heated tensions between the world’s two largest powers. But Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi emerged after three and a half hours of talks with little more than pledges to improve cooperation, despite a string of mutual disagreements.
Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the diplomatic boycott “a powerful rebuke of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign of genocide in Xinjiang.”
“This boycott is a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government’s unconscionable abuses,” Mr. Menendez said, adding that he hoped other nations would join the United States.
More hawkish members of Congress, including Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, called the move a half measure.
“Bold leadership was required,” Mr. Cotton said. “The United States should fully boycott the genocide Games in Beijing.”
But previous attempts to pull athletes out of the Games have fallen flat. The last time the United States pursued a full boycott of the Olympics was in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter rallied against allowing athletes to participate in the Summer Games in Moscow, to protest the Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghanistan.
While dozens of countries joined the United States in that action, most political leaders and sports officials in the decades since have argued that full boycotts only end up punishing athletes and providing talking points for host countries.
Last year, Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, wrote an open letter to the athletes of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, saying the boycott “had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you.”
On Monday, Ms. Hirshland said, “We greatly appreciate the unwavering support of the president and his administration and we know they will be cheering us on from home this winter.”
Ms. Psaki sought to distance Mr. Biden’s boycott from the 1980 ban.
“I don’t think we felt it was the right step to penalize athletes who have been training, preparing for this moment,” Ms. Psaki said.
Beijing has used the Olympic Games in the past to assert itself on the world stage, including in 2008 when the opening ceremony served as a way for the country to tout its economic rejuvenation. The international attention, however, did little to improve human rights in China. Mr. Biden has said rooting out such violations is a crucial piece of a national security strategy that is focused on competing with Beijing’s rising economic influence and coercive diplomacy.
René Provost, a professor of international law at McGill University, said diplomatic boycotts can help to “insert human rights into the conversation.”
The Olympics are a way for China to show it is “strong and central on the global stage,” Mr. Provost added. “So to put human rights as part of that picture does interfere with China’s messaging.”
Zhao Lijian of China’s Foreign Ministry said that the United States should “stop politicizing sports.” Although he went on to warn that “China will take resolute countermeasures,” he gave no details about how the country might retaliate. He has noted that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, accepted an invitation from Mr. Xi to the Olympics.
The deputy prime minister of New Zealand, Grant Robertson, told Television New Zealand on Tuesday that its diplomats had communicated to Beijing in October that they would not be attending the Winter Games. He cited a “range of factors” for the decision, but said it was mostly because of the challenges of traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand had made clear to China on numerous occasions “our concerns about human rights issues,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last month that the administration was discussing with allies how they planned to approach the Games, although he did not specify whether the United States had asked them to join a coordinated boycott. The administration has continued the informal discussions over the last several weeks, according to two European diplomats involved in the discussions.
One diplomat called the boycott a pragmatic move that makes clear the Biden administration’s displeasure with Beijing’s policies, but did not amount to a full snub, in order to leave room for the delicate and ongoing talks between the United States and China. It was not clear, however, whether European governments would also refuse to send official delegations to the Games, and both diplomats said no decisions had yet been made.
The calls for a boycott have grown louder over the case of Ms. Peng, the Chinese tennis star who accused a former top government official of sexually assaulting her. After the allegation, the Chinese government removed almost all references to her on social media within the country, and she disappeared from public life.
Ms. Peng surfaced last month in appearances with Chinese officials, although it was unclear how freely she was able to speak.
The announcement of the U.S. boycott comes ahead of Mr. Biden’s virtual global democracy summit later this week, an effort to take a public stand against authoritarianism and corruption. China was not among the more than 100 countries invited to the summit.
Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Washington, and Steven Lee Myers from Seoul.