Before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Xi Jinping, China’s vice president at the time, personally welcomed President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, to the city where they attended the Opening Ceremonies. Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to travel abroad for the games, had paid great respect to China as host, Xi said.
Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, is presiding over the 2022 Winter Olympics, also to be held in Beijing, but he may not have the chance to greet senior U.S. dignitaries. On Thursday, President Biden said he was considering a diplomatic boycott of February’s Games as a way to protest human rights abuses in China, including alleged mass detention and repression of minorities in Xinjiang province.
A diplomatic boycott, which would allow U.S. athletes to compete as normal, would be a direct insult to Xi and a reminder of the damage to China’s international standing under his watch.
“The Beijing Winter Olympics are Xi Jinping’s games,” said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong who has focused on the history of sports in China. “From the Qing dynasty to modern China, the Chinese have had the same obsessions with international sports, linking it to China’s national affairs and national pride,” he said.
Chinese officials have tried to dismiss the threats of a boycott as inconsequential. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang a “joke” and criticized such efforts as drawing attention away from the Games.
Calling the Winter Olympics and the Paralympics a “stage” for athletes all over the world, Zhao said, “they are the real protagonists. To politicize sports is against the Olympic spirit and harms the interests of athletes from all countries,” he said, promising that China would deliver a “simple, safe and exciting Olympic event to the world.”
Late last month, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, described boycott calls as “distractions” and “sheer illogical farce.” Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times in February called boycotting the Games an “unpopular idea” without wide support. “China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call,” he warned.
On Friday, searches for the keywords “boycott Winter Olympics” appeared to be blocked on the social media platform Weibo. In April, Yuan Zheng, director of American foreign policy studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that a U.S.-led boycott would be the “official start of a new Cold War.”
For Xi, who played a key role in the 2008 Olympics, these Games are especially important as he oversees a push in physical education for China’s youths. The Chinese leader was expected personally to invite Biden to the event at a virtual summit on Monday, but the Games were not discussed during the 3½-hour conversation.
Yet, China, which also was subjected to boycott calls before the 2008 Summer Olympics, may not be as threatened by international pressure as it was 13 years ago. Rather than embarrass Beijing, a U.S. boycott could be taken as yet another reminder of American hostility toward China.
“Previously, it would have been treated as a sign of weakness, but now, given the way messaging has changed and the disregard for the cost to international reputation, a boycott would be spun as another example of how the West is trying to contain China,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat in Beijing and director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin feels “negatively” about the possibility of a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the United States. Putin has been invited to the Opening Ceremonies and is planning to attend, he added.
China’s strict zero-covid policy could mitigate the impacts of a wider boycott. Organizers have said spectator tickets will not be sold outside of China. Chinese officials and state media have not promoted the Games as aggressively as they did the 2008 Summer Olympics.
That is in part because of China’s relative weakness in winter sports compared with Western countries and because Beijing — whose officials believe the West, led by the United States, is in decline — is more confident of its position in the world, according to Xu, the historian at the University of Hong Kong.
“The Chinese are confident enough. In hosting the games, they don’t need to generate legitimacy or support,” he said. “It’s a totally different China and a totally different leader. Xi Jinping doesn’t need [other countries’] blessing,” said Xu.
Still, China may not be able to avoid embarrassment in the event of a boycott. Momentum for a boycott coincides with calls from the international sports community for Chinese authorities to account for the whereabouts of tennis star Peng Shuai, who has disappeared from public view since she made allegations of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese official.
With the scrutiny of Peng’s case and concerns about the safety of athletes who may have shown support for issues such as the protests in Hong Kong, a diplomatic boycott may not be enough, Kassam said.
“Will athletes feel comfortable traveling to China? I think there will be much more anxiety,” she said.
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow, Lyric Li in Seoul, Pei-Lin Wu and Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.
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