Republican lawmakers have spent months criticizing President Biden and his administration for not being tough enough on China, with potential 2024 presidential candidates in the Senate especially eager to position themselves as national security hawks.
In interviews on Capitol Hill, lawmakers conceded they did not want to punish athletes who have trained for years to compete in the Games, and some also emphasized that the last U.S. boycott — of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow — was largely ineffective.
On Monday, the White House announced the United States will not send Biden or any other U.S. government official to the Olympics in February in protest of China’s human rights abuses. U.S. athletes will still be able to participate in the Games, but U.S. officials hope to send an unmistakable signal of disapproval of Beijing’s actions — specifically for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and of democracy activists in Hong Kong.
“I support it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said of the diplomatic boycott. “Honestly, I can’t imagine any other option. I’m not sure how you could possibly send, you know, American government representatives, or [an] American government delegation to attend Olympic Games operating in the shadows of a Uyghur genocide.”
On calling for a complete boycott of the Games, Rubio said: “I haven’t done that because I think we’re punishing the athletes in that regard.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, echoed Rubio’s concerns about a complete boycott of the Games. Instead, he directed his criticism at the Biden administration for not working to get the Olympics moved to a different country.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday she was unaware of any conversations about the Games being moved out of China.
“I have not heard that’s an option under consideration,” she said. “I can just speak to what the decisions are we’re making here from the U.S. government.”
Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has been one of the more vocal critics of Biden’s foreign policy and said the administration needed to be more aggressive toward China, would not back a full boycott.
“I don’t agree with what some people are calling for, which is a boycott of our athletes, which is stopping our athletes from going to the Olympics,” he said Tuesday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “I think that would be a mistake. I understand the sentiment behind it, but it was the same sentiment that led Jimmy Carter to do that in 1980, and I think it didn’t work then. I don’t think it’s fair to punish our athletes. I think there are young men and young women who have spent years, decades practicing and getting ready for the Olympics. And I don’t think it’s fair to make them the victims.”
In 1980, the United States and some of its allies fully boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Cruz said the United States needed to do more than just not send U.S. officials and should actively work to “shine a light on the atrocities of China.” He also said American companies should not advertise with the Games.
“That courage is something the Biden administration doesn’t want to do, doesn’t like to do,” he said. “That courage is something American corporations are terrified to do.”
A senior Biden administration official rebuffed criticism that Biden has not been tough on China, highlighting that the administration declared China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide and imposed sanctions in March against Chinese officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The official said human rights and democracy are at the core of U.S. foreign policy and pointed to American efforts to elevate the issue of forced labor at the G-7 summit in June and include reference to the human rights abuses in the communique from that meeting.
Meanwhile, the Senate has yet to confirm Biden’s nominee for ambassador to China, R. Nicholas Burns. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its hearing for Burns in October and voted overwhelmingly in support of his nomination in early November. But his nomination has floundered with those of other ambassador nominees amid Republican opposition. Cruz is holding up many of the nominees to protest the administration decision to lift sanctions over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, but he has indicated he would not block Burns. Instead, it’s Rubio who says he has concerns with Burns.
“I just don‘t think he’s the right person for the job, and not that he’s a bad guy or anything,” Rubio said. “I just think that sending someone over there who was part of this failed consensus that has brought us to the point we’re at now with China is not the right answer.”
Still, some Republicans — including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, both potential candidates for president in 2024 — are calling for a complete boycott, including athletes, of the Games.
“I regret that the Biden administration’s dithering brought them to the point where the only choice was either go forward with the Games in Beijing or boycott them, and that the IOC awarded these Games to Beijing in the first place,” Cotton said of his message to athletes who would be unable to participate if there were a full U.S. boycott. “But the responsibility for American athletes and ability to compete — if we boycott — would rest solely on the Biden administration in the leadership of the international Olympic movement.”
Haley wrote on Twitter: “A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics is a joke. China doesn’t care if Biden and Team show up. They want our athletes.”
In 2018, the U.S. sent 244 athletes to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, where 2,833 athletes competed. By comparison, the United States sent 613 athletes to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where nearly 11,500 athletes competed.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who helped rescue the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from scandal, has long called for a diplomatic boycott of Beijing as a way of sending a message without punishing the athletes.
“I understand that perspective,” he said of Republicans who have called for a full boycott. “I’m open to their thinking about other actions that could be taken. I’d like to see, for instance, NBC broadcast some of the depredations which are being carried out by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Romney said the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games “didn’t have any impact other than to harm our athletes.” He said Biden’s decision was the “right course,” and he is hopeful other countries make similar decisions.
“I don’t look to put the burden of China’s predations on the back of our young American athletes who have in many cases — well, they and their families — sacrificed enormously their entire lives,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) applauded the White House’s decision on the Olympics and said it’s unlikely Biden will receive much credit from Republicans for his actions on China. Still, he said the U.S. needed to send a strong message on the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs.
“At the same time, you cannot cut off the ability to have some level of conversation with Beijing about economic issues and climate issues,” he said. “But if you’re in the minority party, you don’t bear the burden of preserving the subtleties of this relationship.”