House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday called for a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Games if the International Olympics Committee decides to let the event proceed amid human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
She said U.S. athletes will be celebrated when they return home but it would be unacceptable to send dignitaries to the February event.
“For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak about human rights any place in the world?” Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said. “Let’s have a diplomatic boycott if, in fact, this Olympics takes place. Silence on this issue is unacceptable, it enables China’s abuses.”
The speaker pitched the diplomatic boycott during a joint hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Members of both parties highlighted the pitfalls of letting Chinese President Xi Jinping secure the athletic showcase amid the detention of Muslim Uyghurs in western provinces and other atrocities.
Lantos commission co-chairmen Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, and Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said the IOC should try to find a new venue altogether.
Mr. McGovern said if the Tokyo Summer Games can be postponed for a year on short notice due to a pandemic, then the international community can put the winter games on ice to find a new city.
“This would give the IOC time to relocate to a country whose government is not committing atrocities,” he said.
Mrs. Pelosi said it might not be possible to stop the games but Beijing cannot be given a “blank check with the hope that their behavior would change.”
The speaker said she is disappointed by corporate pushback to Capitol Hill’s efforts to shine a light on abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet even as sponsors go along with supporting the Beijing games.
“I’ve kind of lost my innocence on hoping that corporate America or the powers would be would consistent in what they’ve said or actions they’ve taken,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “While China has changed over 30 years in some respects, it is appalling its human rights record has worsened.”
Mr. Smith said he called the hearing to elevate human rights issues in China and increase pressure on the IOC. He cited Beijing’s deteriorating record since it hosted the Olympics in summer 2008.
Whenever strongmen win bids for global events, Mr. Smith said, “the dictators realize there is no accountability for their actions.”
Susan V. Lawrence, a specialist in Asian affairs for the Congressional Research Service, said state media has positioned Mr. Xi as central to Olympic planning.
She said Mr. Xi sees the games as a chance to push the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and showcase “the alleged advantages of China’s political system.” He also wants to boost the profile of Chinese companies and sponsors to spur the economy.
At the same time, the U.S. State Department says the communist government continues to engage in genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Its use of labor camps and a broad surveillance network comes on top of Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong and Tibet and aggression toward Taiwan.
Rayhan Asat, a human rights lawyer and Yale World Fellow, told lawmakers she visited her Uyghur family until Beijing’s crackdown in 2016. She said her brother is being held in western China but she refuses to be silent about Uyghur persecution.
She said she respects Olympic athletes’ desire to compete but it is important for them to know what’s going on in China. She urged the Biden White House to spark a dialog with participants.
“When the world is looking on the remains of Uyghur society, it will ask itself why it didn’t do more to help,” she said.
The IOC, which declined offers to testify, says it takes labor rights and other issues seriously and has discussed them with the host country and rights groups but it “must remain neutral on all global political issues.”
Lawmakers said that’s an unacceptable explanation in light of the oppression within Chinese borders.
“This is not opinion, these are facts. It is not politics, it is reality,” Mr. McGovern said. “Business as usual would put an indelible stain on an Olympic movement willing to celebrate amid crimes against humanity.”
Mr. Xi’s government continues to deny that it is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and says a boycott of the Olympics on human rights grounds is “doomed to failure.”
Beijing defeated Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2015 to win the Winter Games.
Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, said China has forfeited the right to hold onto the bid.
“There needs to be a city that will step up to the plate for this,” she said.