The Biden administration sought Wednesday to tamp down speculation it is considering a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in China, amid growing pressure from human rights groups and the threat of a “forceful” response from Beijing if Washington tries to rally countries to pull out of the Games.
China’s critics claim there is an increasingly strong case to consider a boycott to protest the communist government’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong and its repressive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang. The Biden administration itself has endorsed a Trump administration finding that Beijing’s repression of ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang amounts to a “genocide.”
“Make no mistake, every country that sends a team to Beijing will be complicit in China’s worst abuses,” argued a new report Wednesday by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, claiming the Chinese government currently has about a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others detained in internment camps in Xinjiang. Beijing, the report argued, should be “stripped” of its privilege of hosting the Olympics.
The Biden administration only fueled the debate with an uncertain response to questions about whether it was weighing preventing American athletes from competing. State Department spokesman Ned Price suggested Tuesday that the administration has been in talks with U.S. allies about a possible collective boycott of the Games that begin in February 2022.
The department then scrambled Tuesday night to retract the comment, and on Wednesday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki directly refuted it, telling reporters that administration officials “have not discussed, and are not discussing, any joint boycott with allies and partners.”
The damage was already done in Beijing, where Chinese officials warned that a U.S. boycott will be met with wrath not only from the Chinese government, but also the Chinese people. Major U.S. companies and American economic interests would suffer as well, Beijing said.
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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Wednesday again rejected accusations of abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region and warned that U.S. attempts to promote such accusations will be met by “resolute opposition of the Chinese people” and “forceful responses from the Chinese side.”
“I would also like to stress that politicization of sports runs counter to the spirit of the Olympic Charter and harms the interests of all athletes as well as the international Olympic cause,” said Mr. Zhao. “The international community, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, will not buy it.”
The Global Times, a nationalist daily tabloid closely tied with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial Wednesday that “radical” calls for a boycott “could result in heavy losses” for major U.S. companies.
“Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Visa, General Electric and other multinational corporations, which count on the Winter Olympics to gain greater market share in the massive Chinese market, are now caught in the crossfire,” the editorial said.
“Anti-China forces,” the editorial noted, are already causing problems for sponsor companies by demanding they withdraw their support for the Olympics in China.
Some 150 human rights groups and advocates have already written a letter to Airbnb Inc., one of the International Olympic Committee’s leading 15 sponsors, calling on the company to drop its sponsorship of the Beijing Games.
The catch, according to a recent analysis produced by the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, is that China is preparing to retaliate against any companies that bow to the pressure from human rights groups.
“China will punish countries that boycott the Games with political sanctions and commercial retaliation, but with much greater severity in the athletic boycott scenario,” Eurasia Group analysts wrote, according to CNBC.
Some have argued the Biden administration should consider a surgical kind of boycott of the games.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican and president of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, said China “deserves our condemnation,” but that preventing U.S. athletes from competing would be “wrong.”
“The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott,” Mr. Romney wrote in an op-ed published last month by The New York Times. “American spectators — other than families of our athletes and coaches — should stay at home, preventing us from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets.”
“American corporations that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games should send them to U.S. venues instead,” he wrote, adding that the U.S. government should also collaborate with the NBC, to ensure the network “refrain[s] from showing any jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies and instead broadcasts documented reports of China’s abuses.”