The Biden Boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Last December, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. The reason cited by White House press secretary Jen Psaki is “the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” The boycott does not extend to Team USA, whose athletes are free to compete in Beijing with the support of the U.S. government. China responded angrily, accusing the United States of actions that “politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation," in a statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.

Q1: What is the significance of a diplomatic boycott?

A1: It means that the United States will not send a high-level, official delegation to the Olympics, which would usually be featured in the photo opportunities at the opening and closing ceremonies. Indeed, Psaki was explicit that the Biden administration did not want do Beijing the favor of “contributing to the fanfare of the Games.” In recent years, First Lady Jill Biden led the U.S. delegation to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence and Mrs. Pence represented the United States at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea during the Trump administration, First Lady Michelle Obama led the delegation to the 2012 London Summer Games, and President George W. Bush attended the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. In 2014, the United States, France, and Germany did not send high-ranking officials to the Sochi Olympics in Russa.

The Biden boycott explicitly does not bar U.S. athletes from participating. This reflects lessons well-learned from the 1980 Carter administration boycott of the Moscow Summer Games for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which destroyed the Olympic dreams of many U.S. athletes. To extend the currently planned boycott to athletes would effectively sanction them for Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which makes no sense.

Q2: How widespread is the boycott? Are other countries following suit?

A2: Britain, Australia, and Canada joined the diplomatic boycott. Others (e.g., Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan) have announced that they will not send officials to the game but are exercising some plausible deniability about whether this is in protest over human rights abuses or out of caution because of Covid-19. In July 2021, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for diplomatic officials to boycott China’s Olympics without “verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.”

Other notable U.S. allies like South Korea, Germany, Italy, and France have not honored the boycott. The latter two have been critical of China’s human rights record in the past but because they are hosting the Olympics next (Paris in 2024 and Milano Cortina in 2026), they may want to avoid retaliation by China, which has said the United States “will pay a price for its erroneous actions.”

Q3: Is China right that the United States is needlessly “politicizing sports” with the Biden boycott?

A3: That would be the pot calling the kettle black. There is no country that has ignored the Olympic Charter’s mandate to keep politics out of sports more than China. China boycotted the Summer Olympics for almost three decades from 1952 to 1980 over questions of Taiwan’s participation. It restricted tourism to South Korea’s 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics over a missile defense controversy. It sanctioned the NBA Houston Rockets in 2019 over a tweet by one of its staff members supporting the democracy protests in Hong Kong. And it has not fully explained the disappearance of former Olympian and world number one women’s doubles tennis star Peng Shuai, who went missing after accusing a senior communist party official of rape. China wins the gold medal when it comes to politicizing sports.

Much as the world would like the Olympics to be devoid of politics, as George Orwell once wrote, “sport is war minus the shooting.” When athletes compete wearing the colors of their nation, they evoke feelings of nationalism among the audience unlike any other form of art, music, or literature. In this regard, the Biden boycott is a high-profile and political sanction, but ironically it depoliticizes the games by removing the presence of government officials there to démarche Chinese leaders or speak to the press. Of course, this does not guarantee that the athletes will refrain from political statements, which China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will work feverishly to muzzle.

Q4: Has the IOC put any pressure on China to address the protests?

A4: Not really. Upholding the mandate to depoliticize the Olympics, the IOC has basically worked with the Chinese to encourage some token concessions (e.g., allowing foreign journalists unfettered internet access), has never put pressure on corporate sponsors to be socially responsible, and has not leveraged the Olympics to promote real political change.

The IOC and World Tennis Association’s (WTA) response to the Peng Shuai case has been instructive. In the run-up to the February 4 start of the games, the IOC has held a couple of calls with Peng to dampen down international uproar over her disappearance from public view, but no transcripts, videos, or acknowledgment of her sexual assault claims were provided. With billions of sponsorship dollars and the Olympic brand at stake, IOC head Thomas Bach instead has effectively messaged “nothing to see here” to move the games forward. Questions about the human rights situations in Xinjiang—where China stands charged with incarceration, torture, and mass sterilization of over one million Uyghurs—are met with the rote IOC response that the games are not political. WTA chairman Steve Simon, by contrast, took the unprecedented step of canceling all professional tennis tournaments in China, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, until Peng is allowed to speak freely and her case of assault is investigated.

Q5: What is the endgame for the United States and China?

A5: Critics say the boycott is a half measure that will not change China’s policies, but the expectation was never that the Biden boycott would change China’s human rights policies; instead, the point is to reiterate that it is not “business as usual” in the new competitive context of U.S.-China relations and that the United States will not give China a Potemkin platform on which to stage its Olympics.

For China, the boycott feeds a domestic narrative of malevolent American hegemonic suppression of China’s rise. China may do a retaliatory boycott of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics and possibly the 2032 Summer Games in Brisbane. Regarding the gauntlet of human rights criticisms, China’s playbook is to weather the political storm in the run-up to the games with the expectation that once the competitions start, the stories of athletic gold medal performance will dominate the media cycle and will mute the political protests. This pretty much worked for the country in 2008, so officials will try to stick to the same playbook.

Nevertheless, as much as Chinese hosts seek to choreograph a perfect Olympics, the history of this events teaches us that “stuff happens.” For one, the unpredictable variable in 2022 is, of course, how much the pandemic will impact the games as the Omicron variant is reportedly growing in China. In addition, despite every effort by the IOC to muzzle the athletes, the fact that one of their own, a former three-time Olympian, is at the center of a controversy highlighting the abuses against free speech and gender equality in China may hit deeply enough to motivate some to speak out more broadly on behalf of the silenced voices in China.

Victor Cha is senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair