China warned that the United States (US) would “pay the price” for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns
The US move — which stopped short of preventing athletes from attending — comes after Washington spent months wrangling over what position to take on the Games beginning in February next year over what it has termed China’s “genocide” of the Uyghur minority.
The move drew fiery opposition from Beijing, which threatened unspecified countermeasures, saying the US would “pay the price for its wrongdoing”.
“Stay tuned,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily press briefing.
“The US attempt to interfere with the Beijing Winter Olympics out of ideological prejudice, based on lies and rumours, will only expose (its) sinister intentions,” Zhao said.
“The Winter Olympics are not a stage for political shows and political manipulation,” he added, accusing the US of “actions that interfere in and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
But Washington’s move was broadly welcomed by rights groups and politicians in the US, where President Joe Biden has been under pressure to speak out against Chinese rights abuses.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration would send no diplomatic or official representation to the Games given China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”
Sending official representation would signal that the Games were “business as usual,” Psaki said. “And we simply can’t do that.”
“The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home,” she added.
The International Olympic Committee called it a “purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects.”
The announcement “also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this,” an IOC spokesperson said.
Diplomatic high-wire act
US-China relations hit a low point under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, with a massive trade war and incendiary debate over how the Covid-19 virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Biden has sought to re-engage with Beijing while at the same time focusing on strengthening traditional US alliances to counter China’s growing economic clout and military presence across the Indo-Pacific region.
The Olympics boycott is part of a complex diplomatic balancing act.
Biden’s administration has left Trump-era trade tariffs on China in place and continues to order naval patrols through sensitive international sea lanes that China is accused of trying to bring under its control.
However, with Biden also emphasising the need for dialogue, critics on the right say he is being too soft.
This makes the looming Olympic Games a political flashpoint.
Members of Team USA, their coaches, trainers and other staff will still receive consular and diplomatic security assistance, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
Bob Menendez, chair of the powerful US Senate foreign relations committee, welcomed the diplomatic boycott as “a powerful rebuke” of the “genocide in Xinjiang.”
The last full boycott of the Olympics by the US was in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter withdrew in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch called the Biden administration’s decision “crucial” but urged more accountability “for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors.”
The Beijing Olympics have also been overshadowed by sexual assault accusations made by former tennis star Peng Shuai against a retired top Communist Party politician.
The three-time Olympian was not heard from for nearly three weeks before re-emerging, as her claims were rapidly censored.
Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held from February 4 to 20 in a “closed loop” bubble because of Covid-19 restrictions.
On the streets of Beijing, residents told AFP that they didn’t agree with the US move.
“Sports is sports. How is it connected to politics? Besides, should political standards be set by the US? Does whatever standard you say become the de facto standard?” said a 72-year-old retired teacher, who gave her surname as Wang.
“To be honest, Chinese are relieved to hear the news because the fewer US officials come, the fewer viruses will be brought in,” tweeted the Chinese state-owned tabloid newspaper, Global Times.