The United States will not send government officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics due to China’s human rights “atrocities,” the White House said on Monday, after Beijing threatened unspecified “countermeasures” against any diplomatic boycott.
President Joe Biden said last month that he was considering such a boycott amid criticism of China’s human rights record, including what Washington says is genocide against minority Muslims in its western region of Xinjiang. The move — despite a recent effort to stabilise ties with a video meeting last month between Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping — is certain to further strain the two superpowers’ relations, which have been at their lowest point in decades.
“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 a daily press briefing. “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,” Psaki said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The diplomatic boycott, which has been encouraged by some members of Congress and rights advocacy groups for months, would not affect the attendance of American athletes, she said.
“The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the United States has consulted allies on a “shared approach” to the Beijing Games. It was unclear if they would follow the US lead.
“Canada remains deeply disturbed by the troubling reports of human rights violations in China,” Canada’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “We were notified of the US decision and we will continue to discuss this matter with our partners and allies.”
The diplomatic boycott also puts corporate Olympic sponsors in “an awkward spot”, but fell short of the US government implying they should cut ties, said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who has overseen Olympics broadcast rights deals.
“The most important issue (for the sponsors) is whether the US team would attend,” Pilson said.
Asked whether the Biden administration wants American companies to boycott the Games, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters the government would not dictate private sector practices, but that firms should be “fully cognisant” of what is transpiring in Xinjiang.
A spokesperson from Comcast-owned NBCUniversal, which is broadcasting the Beijing Games in the United States, said it would still be broadcasting events from China.
China’s embassy in Washington called the US move “political manipulation”, as no invitations had been extended to US politicians in the first place. “In fact, no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to be successfully held,” embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said.
Earlier, China’s foreign ministry said Beijing would take “resolute countermeasures” should Washington go ahead with such a boycott, but it did not elaborate.
The United States is next due to host an Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles, raising questions of how China might respond.
Beijing says it opposes the politicisation of sports, but it has punished American sports leagues in the past, including the National Basketball Association, for crossing political red lines.
‘Excited and ready’
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has faced criticism for turning a blind eye to China’s right record, said the Games should be “beyond politics”.
“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 said.
Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said Team USA was “excited and ready to make the nation proud.” “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,” she said in a statement following the boycott announcement.
Many US athletes argued it would have been unfair to ban them from the Games, and some US lawmakers who supported not sending officials had said it was in US interests for its national anthem to be playing in Beijing as Americans received medals.
While a handful of prominent Republicans criticised Biden for not pursuing a full boycott, Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who led the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, said Biden had made the right choice.
Human rights groups welcomed the move, but said Washington could do more to hold China accountable. For China, which denies all rights abuses, Biden’s move is less a threat to the Games and more of an optics problem that Beijing fueled by threatening retaliation, experts said.
“It would have been a non-story if let alone,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sport management at the George Washington University School of Business. “We typically do not send a large government delegation anyway, especially in Covid times.”
China plans to limit spectator attendance at the February Games, citing strict Covid-19 protocols, and Chinese state media have said Beijing does not intend to invite Western politicians who threaten boycotts. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the only leader of a major country who has accepted China’s invitation. Other countries, including Australia and Britain, are reportedly considering their own boycotts.
Stefano Sannino, chief of the European Union’s diplomatic service, said on Friday that boycotts were a matter for individual member states, not common EU foreign policy.
Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing had options to retaliate — such as limiting bilateral dialogue, stalling visas, or hamstringing athletic delegations and journalists at the Games — all of which may lead to further diplomatic backlash for China’s ruling Communist Party.
“The ultimate origin of these tensions is China’s shift in a more autocratic direction. That’s the CCP’s choice, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the world simply has to remain silent,” he said.