The White House announced on Monday that the US will stage a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. A diplomatic boycott means that US athletes will still be free to compete in the Games set to take place in February, but American government officials will not be in attendance.
The Biden administration had been under pressure from activists and lawmakers in both parties to respond to China’s human rights abuses—most notably Beijing’s ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province and crackdowns in Hong Kong and Tibet. An open letter published earlier this year by over 180 rights groups called for all countries to refrain from sending government representatives to the so-called “Genocide Games.” Calls for a boycott have grown louder since the disappearance from public view of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who recently accused a high-ranking Chinese leader of sexual assault.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the administration “will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games” in light of China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”
China called the US move a “blatant political provocation” and threatened to take “resolute countermeasures,” noting that a boycott would “affect bilateral dialogue and cooperation in important areas.” Beijing has long denied any wrongdoing in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania will join the diplomatic boycott of February’s Winter Games to protest China’s human rights record. Other US allies, however, are reluctant to follow suit.
The diplomatic boycott comes just weeks after talks between Biden and Xi Jinping aimed at easing tensions between the world’s two superpowers, and days before Biden’s first Summit for Democracy—widely understood to be a symbolic effort to rally US allies against China and Russia. The mixed messaging underscores the extent to which ideological differences and economic necessity are pulling Washington’s China policy in two opposite directions.
So, at the end of the day, is the US right or wrong to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics? Here are the strongest cases for both sides of the argument.
It’s really good domestic politics. Public opinion on China has dramatically soured over the past year. Most Americans now identify China as the United States’ greatest enemy or competitor, and over two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats alike want the US to confront China over its human rights policies—even if it comes at the expense of economic ties. Although President Biden has largely maintained his predecessor’s tough stance on China, Republicans have repeatedly accused him of being too soft on Beijing. This is an opportunity for the president to burnish his China hawk credentials, rally the nation around the flag, and pick up some bipartisan support.
It’s the right thing to do. As a country that has long claimed the protection of human rights as one of its key foreign policy objectives, the US has a moral obligation to hold China accountable for its human rights abuses. Olympic Games should not be held in countries that have concentration camps for ethnic and religious minorities. Rights groups have argued that participation in the Beijing Olympics constitutes “an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.” Under this view, engagement is akin to complicity.
Engagement is dangerous. Some argue that allowing the Olympics to go on normally and giving China free rein to whitewash its crimes could embolden the regime. As Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), who advocated for a full boycott, told me, letting the Beijing Olympics proceed normally “sends a horrible signal that the world is willing to collectively shrug their shoulders” at all the atrocities committed by the Chinese regime. Rep. Waltz cited the precedents of Nazi Germany in 1936 and Russia in 2008 to make the case that appeasement raises the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the aftermath of the 2022 Games.
It won’t work. A diplomatic boycott is a symbolic slap on the wrist that will do nothing to hurt the Chinese regime or to help its victims. Government officials don’t compete at the Olympics; their absence will therefore draw very little public attention to the policies they are boycotting. As the International Olympic Committee's Dick Pound pointed out to me, even a full sporting boycott would be very unlikely to change Chinese behavior.
It will be self-defeating. The boycott will invite retaliation. Beijing is likely to respond by imposing (largely symbolic) sanctions on US politicians, officials, and activists, pausing some of the cooperative measures agreed to at the Biden-Xi virtual meeting last month (particularly on issues such as arms control), cooling the prospect of a tariff-reduction deal, and (tacitly) endorsing consumer boycotts of US companies. Moreover, the limited number of countries joining the US boycott (only Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Lithuania so far) makes America look weak and undermines the message that China’s actions are unacceptable to the international community.
It is misguided, selective, and hypocritical. Engagement with China is not equivalent to support for its policies. As I wrote with respect to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, “One can engage with Israeli institutions and do business in Israel while opposing the country’s policies. This doesn’t constitute “normalizing” human rights violations—it is a recognition that it’s practically impossible to boycott every state or country one disagrees with on policy, and that engagement is more productive than marginalization, anyway.” The US does plenty of business with other nations that regularly commit human rights violations (the Gulf countries come to mind). And the US closet is not exactly clean of skeletons in the human rights department (see Guantanamo and the deeply flawed US penal system). Even though criticism of China’s policies is correct on the merits, a selective boycott comes off as virtue signaling in the context of America’s full policy portfolio.
There are good reasons why the US will and should compete with China in areas where American interests are directly threatened, including trade, national security, and technological dominance. But decoupling is just not going to happen. Our two economies are too deeply intertwined to cut ties or wage war.
Similarly, on human rights, we should certainly speak up whenever Beijing’s policies run counter to international law and our values. The fact is that we’ll always have some irreconcilable differences with a regime that treats over 1 million of its citizens as fundamentally subhuman. That practices forced sterilization. That arbitrarily detains innocent civilians in concentration camps on the basis of ethnicity and religion. But none of these things imply the US should altogether end its engagement with China, in the same way that certain American practices shouldn’t stop Canada and Sweden from doing business with us. (Disclaimer: Despite all our flaws, the US and Chinese systems are not morally equivalent.)
I’m very sympathetic to the plight of Uyghurs. I really am. I believe the international community should do much, much more to force the Chinese government to end its repression against them.
But a unilateral diplomatic boycott of the Olympics is the wrong tool to achieve that. It does nothing to help the victims, and it is ultimately not in America’s national interest.
I want to hear from you. Is the boycott the right call? Why/why not? Give me a piece of your mind in the comments section below.