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Biden says U.S. ‘considering’ diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics in China

President Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit Monday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden said Thursday that his administration is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China, a move that would allow U.S. athletes to compete but keep government officials from attending the Games in Beijing to protest China’s human rights abuses.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have advocated for such a boycott.

Biden said a diplomatic boycott is “something we are considering” as he responded to questions from reporters during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Biden has faced pressure to deny Chinese President Xi Jinping the prestige that comes from playing host to global leaders at one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The Games open in early February.

As early as two weeks after Biden was inaugurated, diplomats began private discussions with allies about how to handle the Olympics. Former officials as well as lawmakers were uneasy about the thought of American athletes and dignitaries taking part in a ceremony in China’s capital while more than a million Uyghurs are imprisoned in camps in the country’s northwest.

On Thursday, after Biden’s statements, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is rumored to be mulling a run for president, said that the administration should implement a full boycott of the Olympics — “No athletes. No administration officials. No corporate sponsors” — and that a diplomatic boycott was “the least, the absolute bare minimum, that any civilized nation would do.”

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

Beijing has been accused of genocide by the U.S. government for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and has been heavily criticized for cracking down on democracy advocates in Hong Kong, among other things. In recent days, the international athletic community has raised concerns about Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, who reportedly has not been heard from since she accused a high-ranking Chinese political figure of sexual assault.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday responded to reports of an imminent White House announcement of a diplomatic boycott by declaring that Beijing is confident it can deliver a “streamlined, safe and splendid” Games.

Chinese state media has dismissed calls for boycotts of the upcoming Winter Games as an “illogical farce.”

“A boycott of Beijing 2022 on so-called human rights grounds is not against China itself, but actually targets the Olympics Movement,” Xinhua News Agency wrote in a commentary last week.

China has long considered the Olympics a critical platform for improving its global image. Ahead of the 2008 Summer Games, entire blocks of Beijing were rebuilt to beautify the city and residents were given lessons in “civility” and English.

But China’s desire for a celebratory atmosphere was undermined by international concern over human rights abuses, including a harsh crackdown on widespread protests in Tibetan regions in March 2008.

In the past 10 months, Biden has tried to deftly manage U.S.-China relations, speaking up when the Chinese violate international norms or disregard human rights while seeking to avoid outright conflict.

Biden has repeatedly framed U.S. actions at home and abroad as a democratic counterpoint to autocratic and authoritarian nations such as Russia and China, which he has described as a U.S. competitor, not an adversary.

As he faced questions this year about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending a two-decade-long war, he said China and Russia would love to see the United States still pouring resources into that country. And this week, bragging about the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan he signed Monday, the president said the investment will make the United States more competitive on the world stage. “For example, because of this law, next year will be the first year in 20 years that American infrastructure investment will grow faster than China’s.”

Later, he framed the bill signing in historic terms.

Biden and Xi engaged in a 3 1/2-hour virtual meeting Monday night. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the topic of the Olympics and the attendance of U.S. diplomats did not come up.

During a news briefing shortly after Biden’s comments, Psaki said that the White House has “serious concerns about the human rights abuses we’ve seen” in China and that there are “a range of factors as we look at what our presence would be” at the Olympics.

But Psaki said that she had no update beyond what Biden had relayed and that she wants to “leave the president the space to make decisions.” She offered no timeline for announcing a decision.

Earlier this week, Washington Post opinion columnist Josh Rogin reported that the White House is expected to announce that neither Biden nor any other U.S. government officials will attend the Games.

Among the Republicans advocating a diplomatic boycott is Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), who was the president and chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in 2002.

In a New York Times essay this year, he said that American athletes should compete in China but that American spectators, diplomats and executives “should stay at home.”

“Limiting spectators, selectively shaping our respective delegations and refraining from broadcasting Chinese propaganda would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics,” Romney wrote.

Ellen Nakashima and Christian Shepherd contributed to this report.