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China says it doesn’t care about Biden’s Olympics snub. Why is it warning of countermeasures?

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping during their virtual summit in November. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing’s official line on U.S. government representatives boycotting the Winter Olympics is that China couldn’t care less and American officials were never invited anyway.

Yet the White House’s announcement Monday that neither President Biden nor any other U.S. official will attend has touched a nerve in the Chinese capital, the host city for the Games in February. While dismissing the U.S. move as “grandstanding,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian vowed that China would take “resolute countermeasures.” On Tuesday, Zhao said China had made “solemn representations” to the United States, assailing its move as a bid to “sabotage” the Games.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Online commentary and state media made similar points, saying that U.S. politicians were flattering themselves if they thought their presence was important. Ming Jinwei, a former editor at the official Xinhua News Agency, likened the United States to “the village bully who doesn’t get an invite to your wedding banquet but loudly tells everyone he won’t be attending.”

In pointed snub, no U.S. government official will attend Beijing Winter Olympics

The glib response betrays ­Beijing’s sensitivities about legitimacy at a time when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is preparing to take on a controversial third term. Search results on China’s Weibo microblog for posts on
the U.S. announcement appeared to be censored Tuesday, and few state media outlets covered the news for their domestic audiences.

For Xi, who oversaw the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — seen as China’s coming-of-age on the international stage — the Winter Games are an important marker of Beijing’s emergence as a global power.

“Beijing certainly cares about potential embarrassment around the Olympics, both internationally and domestically,” 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. “You can see the Chinese system has switched into offense mode, accusing the United States of politicizing sport and claiming that no one will notice the boycott.”

More worrying for Beijing is the prospect of other countries following suit, making a boycott harder to ignore. Officials in Britain, Canada and Europe are considering similar measures, with the issue expected to be discussed at the Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in ­Liverpool, England, this weekend.

On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that the U.S. ally would join the diplomatic boycott, citing human rights abuses in China and the breakdown in relations with Beijing. A day earlier, New Zealand said it would not send government ministers to the Winter Olympics but attributed the decision primarily to covid-19 rules. The sports minister of Lithuania, a country under fire from Beijing for forging closer ties with Taiwan, said last week that she and other senior ministry officials would not attend.

While largely symbolic — U.S. athletes will still compete in the Games — the boycott illustrates the growing pressure on China over its treatment of Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xin­jiang, its crackdown on the pro-
democracy movement in Hong Kong and its silencing of Chinese citizens who speak out.

Pressure over China’s human rights abuses mounts ahead of Beijing Olympics

The recent curated reappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who vanished from public view for two weeks after accusing a retired senior Chinese official of pressuring her into sex, has galvanized calls from the international sports community and rights activists for more pressure on Beijing.

“While it’s relatively easy for Beijing to spin a U.S. boycott as another example of Western hypocrisy and double standards, this will be a more difficult narrative to sustain if the boycott grows beyond a few likely suspects,” Kassam said.

The dominance of Western liberal democracies in winter sports makes it harder for Beijing to drown out news of the boycott with shows of support from countries in the global south, she added.

The boycott threatens to undermine a slight thaw in U.S.-China relations after Xi and Biden held a virtual summit last month in which the two pledged to stop relations from deteriorating further. The Biden administration’s pledges to be tough on China and its hosting of a “Summit for Democracy” underline persistent tensions between the rivals and increased scrutiny of Beijing’s human rights record.

“Domestically, civil society is more silenced in China now, but at the same time China’s human rights abuses and systematic violations have naturally triggered more global attention,” said Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law at King’s College London.

At home, Chinese officials appear to have braced for the boycott, emphasizing that China had not personally invited U.S. dignitaries. At a news conference on Friday, Zhao Weidong, deputy chief of propaganda for Beijing, noted that foreign dignitaries are invited by countries’ respective Olympic organizing committees, and not by China.

Rights advocates say the Chinese response demonstrates how much Beijing does care about the Winter Olympics and its image.

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the Chinese government could try to save face, “but deep down, it knows that the international community is upset with its actions and is increasingly willing to act on the discontent.”

When asked Tuesday about China’s intended countermeasures, Zhao said the United States would “pay a price for its wrong behavior.”

“Wait and see,” he said.

Lyric Li in Seoul, Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, and Michael E. Miller in Sydney contributed to this report.

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