On Monday the Biden administration announced it would not send an official United States delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games as a statement against China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang," as well as other human rights abuses such as in Hong Kong. U.S. athletes will still be allowed to compete in the Games, which start in February. USIP’s Lauren Baillie, Mirna Galic and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the rationale behind the decision, how the boycott fits into the U.S. strategy surrounding the Uyghur crisis and how China and U.S. allies are responding.

A sign in Zhangjiakou, China, a city key to Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 23, 2015. (Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times)
A sign in Zhangjiakou, China, a city key to Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 23, 2015. (Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times)

What was the reasoning behind the decision for the diplomatic boycott?

Vandenbrink: The decision reflects a measured, moderate approach to prioritizing criticism of Chinese human rights violations in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, and one that is in line with the administration’s strategy of managed competition with China.

The decision signals that the United States will not continue “business as usual” with a country it has determined is committing genocide, but at the same time does not intend to cut off opportunities for diplomacy and communication. It was notable that U.S. officials informed Chinese counterparts of the decision before the announcement, which came just weeks after a summit between President Biden and Chinese General Secretary Xi that had helped to stabilize relations.    

The choice of a diplomatic boycott reflects the middle ground among the options available to the administration in its approach to the Olympics. Over the past year, some rights groups and lawmakers had called for fuller boycotts, including not sending athletes and/or an economic boycott that would have curbed involvement of U.S. businesses and discouraged American fans from traveling to China to watch. To be sure, those actions would have been up to private corporations and individuals as well as the International Olympic Committee, but the administration could have thrown its support behind those options if it had wanted to take a stronger stance. In recent months, calls had grown for the diplomatic boycott option, including in a letter signed by more than 200 NGOs and in calls from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Both the choice of a diplomatic boycott and the way it was announced send a message that the administration intends to be firm on criticism of Chinese human rights violations but not overly confrontational or provocative in how it raises them.    

How does the diplomatic boycott fit into U.S. strategy of responding to the Uyghur crisis?

Baillie: The diplomatic boycott of the Olympics is an important component of the broader U.S. response to Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs. This response has sought to halt the ongoing human rights violations by pressuring Beijing to change its policies toward the Uyghurs, improving protections for Uyghurs abroad and prohibiting goods produced through Uyghur forced labor from entering U.S. markets. The boycott not only underscores U.S. opposition to Beijing’s policies toward the Uyghurs, it does so in a way that leverages China’s reputational interests in hosting a successful Olympic Games.

The U.S. response to the Uyghur crisis has been pursued through a number of executive and legislative measures. In early 2021, the Trump administration issued a determination finding that Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounted to genocide and crimes against the humanity, citing forced sterilization of Uyghur women, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and forced labor, among other violations, carried out with the intent to systematically eliminate the Uyghurs as a people. The Biden administration subsequently reaffirmed this determination, which provides critical recognition to victims and their families and strengthens support for efforts to seek accountability. In addition, the United States has led efforts at the U.N. to build a coalition of states working to hold Beijing accountable for human rights violations committed against the Uyghurs, and to sanction officials responsible for ongoing atrocities.

Congress has similarly shown considerable leadership in protecting the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, passed in 2020, broadens executive power to sanction Chinese officials. Congress is also currently considering the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, which would provide expedited access to U.S. visa processes for Uyghurs. Following the announcement of the diplomatic boycott, the House of Representatives passed two bipartisan measures condemning Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The first, a resolution recognizing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity, calls for the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. to lead efforts to hold China accountable, including through multilateral sanctions and a U.N.-led investigation. The second, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, would prohibit importation of goods produced in Xinjiang without a determination by Customs and Border Patrol that the goods were not produced with forced labor. Given the vast challenges of verifying supply chains in Xinjiang, the bill would effectively preclude importation of Xinjiang-produced goods.

While the diplomatic boycott is a logical culmination of these ongoing efforts, it is by no means the end of either Beijing’s policies or the U.S. response to them. Considerable work remains to protect and provide redress to the Uyghur community, and Beijing’s doubling down on its policies toward the Uyghurs calls for continued, concerted and innovative action from the United States and likeminded partners.

How is China responding?

Vandenbrink: The Chinese government’s response to the snub has effectively been “good riddance.” China’s foreign ministry has accused the United States of grandstanding over the issue and promised “firm countermeasures,” without specifying them. State-run media outlets have noted that the U.S. delegation had not been invited in the first place, though past Olympics tradition indicates they would have been. 

Reactions among Chinese people may be more varied. Unlike some other actions the United States has taken to criticize China over human rights, such as the Magnitsky Act sanctions on Chinese officials, the diplomatic boycott can be seen as aimed at not just the Chinese government but also at the Chinese people, for whom the 2008 Beijing Olympics were an enormous source of national pride. Many may dismiss the move as politically motivated based on the United States’ sense of rivalry with China.  However, it may be harder to ignore the diplomatic boycotts as the number of countries following suit continues to grow, and if Olympic athletes use the occasion to raise awareness for human rights causes.   

How are U.S. allies responding?

Galic: A number of countries have joined the United States in announcing boycotts, but that coalition is so far Western and almost entirely anglophone, which will make it easier for China to brush off. The most effective statement certainly would be from a greater diversity and number of countries and a boycott that is both broad (across regions) and deep (within regions). It will be interesting to watch how regions of the world where China has gained influence, like Latin America and Africa, respond. 

Japan will also be an interesting case and Tokyo joining a boycott would certainly carry weight. The Japanese government has not taken a particularly strong stance against Chinese abuses in Xinjiang thus far. And its careful relations with its powerful neighbor are already complicated, which may weigh against the likelihood of a diplomatic boycott. However, growing public awareness of the plight of Uyghurs and the appointment of a new “human rights czar” position under Prime Minister Kishida to coordinate human rights issues across the Japanese bureaucracy could facilitate a push for the government to take a clear stand. Conservative lawmakers are also pushing for a boycott.

It’s possible we’ll see a growing wave of boycott announcements culminating closer to the date of the Olympics. There are several factors that may bring other countries along, as we get closer to February. First, the level of internal pressure from groups — including human rights and other nongovernmental organizations — pushing their governments to join the boycott will likely play a role. Countries that have declared China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide are likely to face particular pressure from internal groups to make moves consistent with that stance. 

Second, countries may be waiting to see what China does in response to the first boycotts before committing to a course of action. China’s recent retaliatory actions have included sanctions against offending officials and coercive economic measures, but Beijing has various options.

Third, although the European Union as an entity has deferred to its member states to make individual national decisions, leading EU countries like France and Germany are seeking a common European response. If such a response is devised, this could affect a number of European countries.

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