White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Monday that the Biden administration "will not send any diplomatic or official representation" to the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
Psaki, in confirming the long-expected diplomatic boycott, cited the Chinese government's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang," as well as "other human rights abuses."
The announcement came several hours after a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, anticipating the move, accused U.S. politicians of "grandstanding" and "political provocation," and threatened "firm countermeasures." Psaki did not comment directly on that threat.
She did clarify, though, that U.S. athletes have the White House's "full support." Their participation in the Winter Games, which begin Feb. 4, won't be impacted.
"But we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games," Psaki said. "U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of [China's] egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang. And we simply can't do that."
Why a diplomatic boycott?
President Biden said last month, days after he virtually met with China’s leader Xi Jinping, that the United States was considering a diplomatic boycott. The Olympics didn’t come up in that meeting, but Biden did discuss human rights abuses in the country.
China is accused of arbitrarily detaining more than a million Muslims, many of them Uyghurs, and cracking down on freedoms throughout the western region of Xinjiang. Both the Biden administration and Trump administration have deemed China's treatment of Uyghurs a “genocide.”
Congressmen, activists and many others have long urged the U.S. and other democratic nations to execute a diplomatic boycott. Senator Mitt Romney described the idea in a March op-ed, writing that an "economic and diplomatic boycott" would “reduce China’s revenues, shut down their propaganda, and expose their abuses.” Romney and Senator Tim Kaine then co-sponsored a section of a wide-ranging China-focused bill, passed by the Senate in June, that made the implementation of a boycott official U.S. policy.
A coalition of 180 human rights groups has also called for one, “to ensure [that the Olympics] are not used to embolden the Chinese government’s appalling rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told Yahoo Sports in February: “The key here is to not give the Chinese government any particular legitimacy around this event.”
On Monday, Richardson applauded the White House's move as "a crucial step toward challenging the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities.
"But this shouldn’t be the only action," she continued. "The U.S. should now redouble efforts with like-minded governments to investigate and map out pathways to accountability for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors.”
The coalition of rights groups, which now numbers more than 250, also "welcomed the announcement," and urged other nations to follow "or risk endorsing China’s gross human rights abuses."
Psaki said the White House had informed allies of its decision, but indicated that the Biden administration wouldn't pressure them to join. Several European nations are reportedly considering similar steps. Lithuania became the first to announce a diplomatic boycott of the Games last week, after its foreign minister had called on European and American officials to coordinate a stance.
The case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who went missing last month after accusing a high-ranking Chinese politician of sexual assault, has amplified boycott calls. The International Olympic Committee has drawn harsh criticism for appearing to aid the Chinese government in its silencing of Peng. Several human rights advocates see the IOC as "complicit."
What is a diplomatic boycott, and how would it impact athletes?
The diplomatic boycott won’t impact Team USA athletes in any meaningful way. All athletes who qualify will still be allowed to travel to Beijing and compete.
Instead, the Biden administration will keep any American government officials or dignitaries from attending the Games. First Lady Jill Biden led the United States delegation to the Tokyo Olympics last summer, attended multiple sporting events, and schmoozed with everybody from Team USA athletes to French president Emmanuel Macron.
Such a delegation in Beijing will now not exist. It's unclear if U.S. officials had even been invited. Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, indicated that they had not been. Now, they certainly won't be.
But a United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee delegation, comprising hundreds of athletes and support staff, will still be in Beijing. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland, in a statement shortly after Psaki's announcement, said that the Olympic committee "greatly appreciate the unwavering support of the President and his administration and we know they will be cheering us on from home this winter."
The United States has only once boycotted the Games in full — in 1980, when they were held in Moscow, shortly after a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"We are not [doing that]," Psaki reiterated Monday. "The athletes will be participating."
She said the diplomatic boycott is not the only step the U.S. will take to address China's human rights abuses. But further steps will not include a full boycott.
"I don't think we felt it was the right step to penalize athletes, who have been training, preparing for this moment," Psaki said when asked why the administration wouldn't pursue a full boycott. "We felt that we could send a clear message by not sending an official U.S. delegation."
Zhao, the Chinese spokesman, did not specify how China might retaliate.