On Monday, the Biden administration announced the U.S. will stage a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympics to protest human rights violations by China.
U.S. athletes will still compete in the games slated to begin on February 4, but no high-level government officials will attend.
The U.S and other countries typically send high-level diplomats to Olympic games to represent their home nation. At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, first lady Jill Biden led the U.S. delegation, and at the Paralympics, second gentleman Doug Emhoff led the delegation.
President Biden first introduced the idea of a possible boycott last month as he hosted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House. Asked by a reporter about U.S participation in the Olympics, Biden said he was “considering” supporting a boycott.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the move in the daily press briefing.
“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” Psaki told reporters, “we have a fundamental commitment to promoting human rights. And we feel strongly in our position, and we will continue to take actions to advance human rights in China and beyond.”
Psaki did not comment on whether President Biden considered a total boycott of the games to keep U.S. athletes from participating entirely but stated that “we felt that we could send a clear message by not sending an official U.S. delegation.”
“I don’t think that we felt it was the right step to penalize athletes who have been training and preparing for this moment,” Psaki added, “the U.S athletes who will compete will have our full support, but we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games.”
International human rights groups have been calling for a total boycott of the Beijing Olympic games for months. Specifically over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjian region and a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and other areas.
In May, a coalition representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong, and others released a statement calling for a total boycott, not lesser measures like diplomatic boycotts.
“The Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghur people and waging an unprecedented campaign of repression in East Turkistan, Tibet, and Southern Mongolia, as well as an all-out assault on democracy in Hong Kong.”
“Participating in the Beijing Olympic Games at this time would be tantamount to endorsing China’s genocide,” the statement continues.
Senator and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Menendez (D-NJ) supports the diplomatic boycott, calling it “a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government’s unconscionable abuses.” He added that he hopes “other allies and partners that share our values will join with the United States in this diplomatic boycott.”
Australia, whose relationship with China has soured in recent years, has also stated that they are considering a diplomatic boycott of the games.
However, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AL) said that a diplomatic boycott is nothing but a “half measure.”
“The United States should fully boycott the Genocide Games in Beijing,” Cotton said. “American businesses should not financially support the Chinese Communist Party, and we must not expose Team USA to the dangers of a repugnant authoritarian regime that disappears its own athletes.”
The U.S. has staged a total boycott of Olympic games in the past. In 1980 the Olympic games were held in Moscow, and then-President Jimmy Carter kept all U.S. athletes from participating in a protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in a statement, responded to the U.S. decision to keep diplomats away from the game, calling it a “political decision for each government” that it “fully respects.”
“At the same time, this announcement also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this,” the IOC statement said.
In a daily briefing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that the U.S decision is political “grandstanding,” and “if the U.S. side is bent on going its own way, China will take firm countermeasures.” Zhao provided no details on what precisely those countermeasures would be.