With the Beijing Winter Games one year away, politicians and activists around the world are seeking to use the Olympics as leverage to hold China to account for human rights abuses, sparking early discussions of punitive action such as a boycott.
Two weeks into its term, the Biden administration is far from settling on a course of action regarding the Olympics, but mid-level diplomats have begun private discussions with key Western allies about how to handle the Games given the genocide declaration, said a foreign diplomat familiar with the matter. The issue could become an early flash point for the administration’s emerging China policy and highlight the challenge President Biden faces in persuading allies to join in a strong condemnation of Beijing’s human rights abuses.
The lucrative event is scheduled to get underway Feb. 4, 2022, and some lawmakers and former U.S. officials have said the image of American athletes marching in an opening ceremony in the Chinese capital while more than 1 million Uighurs are imprisoned in camps in the country’s northwest is an unpalatable one.
“If you’re going to accuse a government of genocide, you can’t then have an Olympics in that country as if it’s a normal place,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration. “There has to be some implication. Some consequence.”
On his last full day as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo called China’s repression of its Muslim minority “genocide,” making the United States the first country to deliver that assessment. But he left the thorny issues of what to do about that designation to his successor, Antony Blinken.
In his confirmation hearing last month Blinken said it “would be my judgment as well” that China’s treatment of Uighurs constituted genocide. Blinken did not say what he would recommend the United States do as a result.
In late January, mid-level State Department officials reached out to at least one European ally to discuss how they might approach the 2022 Olympics given the Biden administration’s view that China was committing genocide, said two Western diplomats, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
“We will consult closely with allies and partners at all levels to define our common concerns, and establish our shared approach to China,” the White House said in a statement.
Malinowski, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has raised the matter with the Biden administration. He said he sees the choices as ranging from “going to Beijing as if the genocide never happened” to insisting that China allow transparency, freedom of expression and media access to its citizens — conditions, he said, China is unlikely to allow — to a boycott. He said he’d start by thinking about “reasonable conditions” and then move to a boycott if necessary.
Last month, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and a half-dozen Republican colleagues introduced a resolution urging the IOC to move the Winter Games out of China. But after Beijing has invested billions of dollars over the past five years preparing for the event, the IOC is highly unlikely to consider such a drastic measure.
Other options include a diplomatic boycott — supported by some politicians in Britain — in which government ministers and members of the royal family would pointedly stay home. Consumer campaigns could be launched to boycott Olympic sponsors. Athletes could speak out against China’s repression of the Uighurs and Hong Kong activists, or find some way to register their protests.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin blasted such ideas. “It is highly irresponsible for some parties to try to disrupt, intervene and sabotage the preparation and holding of Beijing Winter Olympic Games to serve their political interests,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Such actions will not be supported by the international community and will never succeed.”
On Thursday, Biden, in his first foreign policy speech, pledged to counter China’s “aggressive coercive action” and “to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance.” But, he added, in a reflection of the delicate balancing act his administration is attempting, “we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”
With much of the Olympic world’s attention focused on this summer’s Tokyo Games, beset by its own issues amid covid-19 concerns, boycott suggestions are largely viewed as premature. Moreover, U.S. Olympic officials have been steadfast in their view that a boycott is an ineffective diplomatic tool.
Officials and former athletes still smart from the U.S. Olympic Committee’s decision, under pressure from the Carter administration, to sit out the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Though more than 60 countries joined the snub, hundreds of American athletes were deprived of potential once-in-a-lifetime Olympic glory. And the Soviets stayed in Afghanistan for nearly another decade.
The U.S. government cannot unilaterally bar athletes from the Olympics or declare a boycott. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, an independent nonprofit organization, has sole authority to make the final call.
Rather than boycott the Games, “we believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and political issues,” a USOPC spokesman said in a statement.
The IOC has declined to address reports of human rights abuses in China. The organization’s president, Thomas Bach, spoke last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Olympic preparations, but an IOC summary of the call made no mention of whether human rights issues were discussed.
Bach points to his own experience in arguing that boycotts are ineffective. Four decades ago he was an Olympic-caliber fencer when his home country, West Germany, joined the United States in the Moscow boycott. All that accomplished “was to trigger the revenge boycott of the following Olympic Games [in Los Angeles],” he said recently.
Human rights concerns also cast a cloud over the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, when China faced criticism for its actions in Tibet and its support for the Sudanese government amid military atrocities in the Darfur region.
More than a dozen years later, official repression in China has only intensified. China is accused of the coerced sterilization of Uighur women, surveilling Uighurs with invasive technology, and forcing them into hard labor or reeducation camps. The crackdown on Hong Kong protests, after the authorities enforced a draconian national security law depriving citizens of free speech rights, and the detention of journalists and activists there have drawn international condemnation.
The United States has imposed sanctions on more than a dozen senior Chinese officials over the Hong Kong crackdown, including members of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. In response, Beijing imposed sanctions of its own on Pompeo and 27 other high-ranking Trump administration officials, calling them “anti-China” politicians.
“Everyone wants to de-escalate” tensions with China in “business and politics,” said an adviser to the European Union. In some European countries, the adviser said, the “Winter Olympics is like the Super Bowl. A boycott would be highly unpopular.”
The adviser noted that an E.U.-China investment treaty concluded in principle at the end of last year has given Beijing leverage, as the Europeans know a boycott would “blow up” the deal.
In late December, members of Biden’s incoming economic team reached out to Jörg Wuttke, president of the E.U. Chamber of Commerce in China, to see if he thought the Europeans would delay their negotiations with China on the investment pact to allow the Biden administration to take part, Wuttke said in an interview.
During those discussions, Wuttke said he broached the Olympics. “I asked if there was an appetite in the Biden administration to boycott, and they said, yes, among some of the Young Turks,” he said, referring to the younger generation who support a more confrontational approach to China.
Still, Wuttke saw little prospect of a multination boycott. “The idea that the West would be unified in the event of a U.S. boycott of the Olympics I think is an illusion,” he said. “I’ve spoken with European ambassadors and friends here, and the appetite to take on China with a boycott is zero.”
To date, no government or national sports authority has announced it will be pulling out.
Lawmakers in Australia, Britain, Canada and Germany are also debating the issue.
“At the very least, governments should not endorse the Games and should not themselves attend the Games,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a conservative member of the British Parliament and former cabinet member. “That’s giving their blessing.”
Souad Mekhennet and Anne Gearan in Washington, Amanda Coletta in Toronto and Eva Dou in Seoul contributed to this report.