It is not too soon to start thinking about how the United States and other democracies, which have also condemned China’s human rights violations — though without invoking the genocide definition — are going to deal with this situation. History counsels caution in boycotting or otherwise politicizing the Games, when it can be avoided, so as not to leave dedicated athletes stranded after years of hard work. Yet history, including the notorious 1936 Summer Games in Hitler’s Germany, also teaches the danger of athletic business as usual with totalitarian regimes.
For the time being, the Biden administration has taken no position on Republican calls for a boycott, or on a different suggestion — moving the Games elsewhere. Partly, this is because the new administration is reviewing the determination that China is guilty of genocide, which was reached by the Trump administration on its last full day. The review is appropriate, even in light of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statements that he personally agrees with it. Given the Trump State Department’s low standing in the international community, its pronouncements carry less weight than would a fresh one by Mr. Blinken’s team. And, as State Department spokesman Ned Price noted this past Thursday, the administration must consult with allies as to the most effective joint approach to the issue.
We would hope that the administration would tackle those consultations with urgency commensurate to China’s wrongdoing and with creativity to match. For many countries in Europe, the Winter Games, with their Alpine skiing and skating events, are even more important than the Summer Games; their people may be especially reluctant to join in an outright boycott. Surely, however, they understand that the Games are to a large extent about money and national pride — and the threat to deny those to China gives democracies leverage.
For Beijing, the overriding purpose of hosting the Olympics in 2022 — as it was for the Summer Games in 2008 — is to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That legitimacy would implicitly extend to their brutal campaign against the Uighurs unless explicitly countered. If they do indeed participate, the United States and others must do so while making it clear that they in no way approve or tolerate China’s human rights abuses. It’s admittedly easier to state that objective than to design a specific means for achieving it. But U.S. officials must start planning, lest the world comes to dance on China’s ice and sled down China’s hills a year from now, as if everything in that country were perfectly all right.