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In pointed snub, no U.S. government official will attend Beijing Winter Olympics

The Beijing 2022 logo, outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, in Beijing. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The United States will not send President Biden or any U.S. government official to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February to protest China’s human rights abuses, the White House announced Monday, in a pointed snub to a country seeking to use the Games to enhance its global standing.

Though largely symbolic — the diplomatic boycott does not affect the ability of American athletes to participate in the Games — it will be seen as a major affront by Washington’s greatest military and economic competitor as China seeks to distract from its increasingly repressive policies at home and aggression abroad.

Pressure to mount such a boycott has been building for months, with lawmakers from both parties and human rights advocates calling on the Biden administration not to attend in response to Beijing’s policies targeting democracy activists in Hong Kong and Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, among other issues. The administration in March declared China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of [China’s] egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” she said. “We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home.”

But, she added, “we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”

Who are the Uyghurs, and what’s happening to them in China?

Biden told reporters last month that he was weighing a diplomatic boycott. The issue did not arise in the virtual summit Biden held with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.

China's Foreign Ministry said on Dec. 6 that "no one cares" whether individual politicians come to the Beijing Winter Olympics and the focus is on the athletes. (Video: Reuters)

Chinese officials were informed of the U.S. move, Psaki said.

On Monday in Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was highly critical. “I want to stress that the Winter Olympic Games is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation,” said Zhao Lijian, responding to reports that a boycott announcement was imminent.

“U.S. politicians keep hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games. This wishful thinking and pure grandstanding is aimed at political manipulation,” he said. “It is a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic Charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.” 

Psaki said allies and partners have been briefed on the U.S. move.

“The hope is that Washington’s leadership here will embolden allies in Europe and perhaps Australia to do the same,” said David Shullman, director of the Global China program at the Atlantic Council. “A common position among democracies will send a significantly stronger message about the unacceptable nature of China’s abuses than a singular U.S. effort that Beijing will seek to dismiss as a gimmick driven by U.S. rivalry with China.”

Officials in Australia, Canada and Europe have been debating the issue.

A British official said his government had “not taken a decision on this yet. But we share many of the same concerns. . . . We are actively considering our position.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while the subject is still under discussion, anticipated talks on the matter at this weekend’s Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Liverpool, England, and an announcement from London then, “if not before.”

In discussions with allies, the Biden administration did not pressure them to carry out a diplomatic boycott, said two Western officials familiar with the discussions. But, the officials said, European allies are operating under the understanding that the United States would be disappointed if they send a high-level delegation, such as a foreign minister.

The administration’s decision stands in contrast to 1980, when, under pressure from the Carter administration, the U.S. Olympic Committee made the decision to sit out the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Hundreds of American athletes were deprived of potential once-in-a-lifetime Olympic glory.

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.

Pressure mounts for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics

The Olympics host committee, Beijing 2022, said in a statement last month that it “has been upholding its commitment to hosting the Games in an open manner, and has been welcoming people from all walks of life and from all countries . . . to participate in the Games in their own ways.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be attending the event, according to Russian media reports in September. He accepted an invitation from Beijing to attend despite Russian athletes being barred from competing under the Russian flag and anthem until December 2022 as a result of a long-running, state-sponsored doping program.

“The presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement Monday. “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.”

With less than two months to go before the Beijing Opening Ceremonies, the announced diplomatic boycott is just the latest mark against a Winter Games that has been controversial since the day China was awarded hosting rights in 2015.

The country most recently has come under fire for its response to Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s public accusations that she was sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who played a key role in securing the Beijing Winter Games.

Peng was not heard from for nearly three weeks, sparking concern across the sports world. She finally participated in a video call with IOC officials on Nov. 21, but Olympic leaders have faced heavy criticism for their handling of the matter, which the IOC has described as a “quiet diplomacy approach.”

Lawmakers in Washington applauded the administration’s move.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was a senior diplomat in charge of human rights during the Obama administration. “I don’t want to deny our athletes the opportunity to compete in a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but we should not in any way be legitimizing an Olympics that the Chinese view as an opportunity to advertise the virtues of their regime and whitewash what’s happening in Xinjiang and Tibet and Hong Kong.”

China’s hosting of the Summer Olympics in 2008 also drew protests over human rights and calls for a boycott — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged President George W. Bush to skip the Opening Ceremonies. Bush went anyway, becoming the first U.S. president to travel abroad for the Games, attending with first lady Laura Bush.

However, he used the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing on the eve of the Olympics to nudge China on human rights, saying, “All people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose.”

The Tokyo Summer Olympics held this year were closed to spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, but diplomatic representatives were allowed. The scaled-back U.S. contingent was led by first lady Jill Biden, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Raymond Greene, the chargé d’affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy.

President Donald Trump stayed home during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics but sent a delegation that included Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump.

John Hudson contributed to this report.