US diplomats to boycott 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for the boycott

The US has announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China - a move that has been heavily criticised by Beijing.

The White House said no official delegation would be sent to the Games because of concerns about China's human rights record.

But it said US athletes could attend and would have the government's full support.

China called Washington's move a "self-directed political farce".

"The US just wants to politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation," said a statement by the Spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the UN.

"The success of the Games does not rely on the attendance of a handful of countries' government officials."

Earlier, anticipating the announcement, Beijing said it would take "resolute countermeasures" against such a boycott.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the boycott on Monday, saying that the administration would not contribute to the "fanfare" of the Olympics.

"US 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," she said. "We simply can't do that."

Ms Psaki added that the US government did not feel "it was the right step to penalise athletes who had been training for this moment", but that not sending an official US delegation to the 2022 Games "could send a clear message".

Following the US announcement, New Zealand said on Tuesday it too would not send a delegation. Other countries, including the UK and Australia, are said to be considering boycotts.

'Political posturing'

China's Washington embassy also waded in on the announcement, calling the boycott a "grave distortion of the spirit of the Olympic Charter".

"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," said spokesman Liu Pengyu, quoted by Reuters.

Mr Liu added that no invitation had been extended to US politicians, "so this 'diplomatic boycott simply comes out of nowhere".

On Chinese social media platform Weibo, the search topic "US diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics" has been censored as of Tuesday morning.

Most of the comments below a post on the announcement by state media outlet Global Times were also deleted, leaving only eight out of close to 1,500 comments untouched.

"The Olympics are for athletes, what does it have to do with... politicians? Even if you boycott, the only people you're hurting are your own countrymen (including athletes)," one such comment read.

High-level government representatives - from the US and other countries - are usually present at Olympic Games.

Earlier this year, First Lady Jill Biden led the US delegation at the summer Olympics held in Tokyo.

China had pre-emptively tried to take the sting out of this in the last few days by dismissing such a move as irrelevant.

Officials said Covid restrictions meant Beijing and the IOC weren't inviting any dignitaries anyway. You can expect to see this decision derided as yet another sign of a "cold war mentality".

But it was always very unlikely that Joe Biden or any senior political figure would come to a Games hosted by a government he said is committing genocide.

In the months building up to this decision one senior US diplomat I spoke to said they'd try to educate their athletes about what's happening in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They envisaged something like fire side chats among athletes between events in Beijing.

Will the UK now follow suit? London does not officially accuse Xi Jinping's Communist regime of genocide but Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has reportedly said just that in private conversations.

Some months ago a senior UK official, intimately involved in policy on China, told me they thought the UK would be seen as America's 'poodle' if it joined a boycott.

Bipartisan support

In the US, the diplomatic boycott was praised by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney tweeted that the Biden administration was "right to refuse" a diplomatic presence at the Olympics, while Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi added that she applauded the decision.

"While we must support and celebrate our athletes, America - and the world - cannot give our official imprimatur to these games or proceed as if there is nothing wrong with holding the Olympics in a country perpetrating genocide and mass human rights violations," Ms Pelosi said.

Some US politicians, however, said they believed that the diplomatic boycott is not enough, with Senator Tom Cotton calling it a "half measure" and argued that the administration should have opted to "fully boycott" the games.

The US has accused China of repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities living mostly in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.

Tensions have also risen over the way China has acted to suppress political freedoms in Hong Kong, and because of concern for the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who has accused a top government official of assault.

The Women's Tennis Association last week suspended all tournaments in China because of "serious doubts" about Ms Peng's safety.

Other countries, including the UK and Australia, are said to be considering boycotts.

The Biden administration's diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics falls far short of a previous US boycott in 1980, when it pulled its athletes out of the Moscow Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

The Soviet Union and its allies, in turn, boycotted the following 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles.

The US is itself due to hold the Summer Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles.

Media caption,
Athletes get ready for the 2022 Winter Olympics near Beijing