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Opinion Biden administration soon to announce diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics

A maintenance worker at the National Speed Skating Oval in Beijing on Oct. 10. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

With the Beijing Winter Olympics just three months away, the Biden administration will soon have to make clear whether it plans to send an official delegation to China. But sooner rather than later, according to several sources familiar with the plans, the White House is expected to announce that neither President Biden nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the Beijing Games. This diplomatic boycott is intended, the sources say, as a way to respond to the Chinese government’s human rights abuses without impacting U.S. athletes.

Although the administration technically has not finalized this decision, a formal recommendation has been made to the president and he is expected to approve it before the end of the month, administration sources confirmed. The timing of this process was not linked to the Biden-Xi virtual meeting Monday evening, which was billed as a way for the two leaders to demonstrate their ability to manage complex U.S.-China relations in an era of rising tensions. Various reports this week have said that Xi Jinping intended to bring up the Olympics issue with Biden, perhaps even inviting him to personally attend. But the issue didn’t come up at all during the 3½-hour meeting, according to initial reports.

“President Biden raised concerns about the [People’s Republic of China’s] practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as human rights more broadly,” the White House readout of the Biden-Xi meeting stated.

Biden administration officials have been virtually silent on Olympics-related issues in recent months, refusing to speculate on whether Biden would support a full athlete boycott (as human rights groups and activists are calling for), or a more limited boycott, or no boycott at all. Now that the Biden-Xi virtual summit is complete, sources said, the administration has one less reason to hold off on announcing the diplomatic boycott. The administration will inform allies but leave them to make their own decisions on whether to follow the U.S. lead.

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The White House and State Department declined to comment for this column. There are many nuances that the Biden team could apply to the diplomatic boycott in terms of its scope and how it is presented in the context of U.S.-China relations.

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In a May hearing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for a U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics as a way to express international concern about China’s human rights abuses without punishing U.S. athletes.

“What moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide?” she said. “So, honor your athletes at home. Let’s have a diplomatic boycott. … Silence on this issue is unacceptable. It enables China’s abuses.”

Following Pelosi’s remarks, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman accused her of spreading “lies and disinformation,” as well as using “the so-called human rights issue as a pretext to smear and slander China.” The Biden administration has reaffirmed the Trump administration’s January determination that the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang province constitute an ongoing “genocide.”

In a March New York Times op-ed, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also argued for an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. He wrote that a full boycott would be “counterproductive” and said President Jimmy Carter’s decision to fully boycott the 1980 Moscow Games handed the Soviet Union a propaganda victory and U.S. athletes should be allowed to compete.

“In authoritarian states, the Olympics has more often been a tool of propaganda than a lever of reform,” Romney wrote.

The Biden administration is trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach, said Michael Mazza, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A diplomatic boycott, especially on a unilateral basis, is unlikely to improve Beijing’s behavior. For that reason, more steps should be taken to use the Olympics as an opportunity to pressure China on human rights, he said.

“They are trying to thread the needle,” said Mazza. “They are trying to make sure that with any actions they take, the burden doesn’t fall on athletes. The Biden administration also wants to make sure they are not too far out on a limb compared to allies and partners.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush also tried to thread the needle. He accepted then-Chinese President Hu Jintao’s invitation to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, despite an ongoing crackdown in Tibet. But Bush affirmed his support for human rights inside China in 2007 by hosting the Dalai Lama in Washington and awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal.

Nury Turkel, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told me that the international community has failed to learn the lessons of 2008, when the Chinese Communist Party used the Olympics to burnish its legitimacy and distract the world from its atrocities.

The 2022 Olympics in China are also similar, Turkel said, to another Olympic Games that were held in another country committing genocide against religious minorities — the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

“The international community must come together,” said Turkel. “We still have a lot to do to stop the Chinese government’s attempt to normalize a genocide committed in broad daylight while the world watches.”