President Joe Biden said Thursday he is considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which would deliver a stinging rebuke to China over its alleged human rights abuses.
It’s “something we are considering,” Biden said when asked about a U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Games, set for Beijing in February.
Biden’s comment comes just days after he and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit aimed at reducing tensions between the two countries, which have flared over the COVID-19 pandemic, trade policies, Taiwan and other flashpoints.
If Biden launches a diplomatic boycott, it would almost certainly roil the U.S.-China relationship anew, and it could increase pressure on other world leaders to skip the Games as well.
Human rights advocates have spent months lobbying the White House to call for a full-scale U.S. boycott of the 2022 Games.
The decision not to send an official American delegation to the Games would fall short of that dramatic step, but would still represent a major snub. The U.S. traditionally sends a roster of high-profile dignitaries, often led by the sitting vice president or the first lady, to attend Olympic events — including the opening and closing ceremonies. First Lady Jill Biden led the U.S. delegation to the most recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Xi’s government is hoping to use the Games to burnish China’s battered reputation on the world stage, with millions of viewers expected to tune in.
Biden doesn’t have the power to impose a full U.S. boycott — such a decision rests solely with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has declined to entertain the idea.
“We strongly believe that the governments of the world, including our own, and the respective diplomatic teams and experts should lead the conversation about international relations,” USOPC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland said last month.
But many human rights groups and some lawmakers in Congress want Biden to use his political megaphone to lean on the Olympic committee, arguing that a U.S.-led boycott would send a forceful signal to China, as well as other authoritarian countries, about America’s commitment to democratic freedoms.
Biden’s own advisers have said China is engaging in “genocide” against the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region. Xi’s government has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in “re-education” and labor camps in Xinjiang.
“We have serious concerns about the human rights abuses we’ve seen in Xinjiang,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Thursday.
Psaki said Biden’s consideration of a diplomatic boycott “doesn’t say anything” about his meeting Monday with Xi, adding that the topic didn’t come up during the three and half hour virtual summit. The White House has described that meeting as respectful and focused on ensuring tense competition between the two world powers doesn’t lead to conflict.
“But there are areas where we do have concerns,” Psaki said, singling out China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. “Certainly there are a range of factors as we look at what our presence would be.”
Psaki declined to elaborate on what a diplomatic boycott could look like.
Washington has also expressed alarm over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, where a pro-democracy movement has been quashed, and Beijing’s threats against Taiwan’s independence, which it sees as a breakaway province.
Chinese officials have brushed off the U.S. criticism as foreign meddling in domestic affairs. China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is “about terrorism and separatism, not about human rights,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said earlier this year.
Wang warned against the idea of a U.S. boycott of the Olympics, saying it would politicize sports and run counter to the spirit of the Olympic Charter.
Biden’s deliberation over whether to authorize a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics comes as Beijing also is under global scrutiny for its handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, which first emerged in Wuhan, as well as its hardline economic and diplomatic practices.
American athletes previously boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow under pressure from President Jimmy Carter, who viewed the boycott as a sanction after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Dozens of other countries joined the U.S. in its boycott, and the Soviet Union responded with its own boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Many U.S. athletes were furious over the decision to boycott, and a group of them even filed a lawsuit against the USOPC seeking to overturn it.
In 2014, then-President Barack Obama declined to send the vice president, first lady or any of his cabinet secretaries to the Sochi Games. Instead, the U.S. delegation included two openly gay athletes, an apparent rebuke of Russia’s anti-gay laws.
When he was vice president, Biden and his wife Jill led the U.S. delegation to the opening weekend of the 2010 Winter Games in Canada.
During the Trump administration, then-Vice President Mike Pence led the U.S. delegation to 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where he sparked backlash by declining to stand when members of the Korean unified team were introduced at the opening ceremony.
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