On the Olympic boycott bandwagon
Some say the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games is too little, too late
The 2022 Winter Olympics launch in Beijing on Feb. 4, but dignitaries from several countries will not be attending. The United States on Monday announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, saying that officials could not conduct “business as usual” while China commits crimes against humanity in the country’s eastern Xinjiang province. Since then, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada have followed suit, withholding their own dignitaries, but not athletes, from the event.
The Campaign for Uyghurs insisted it is “morally untenable” for the Olympics to continue as normal in a country committing genocide. As early as February 2021, 180 human rights organizations demanded the International Olympics Committee (IOC) relocate to a different host country to avoid what the groups have called the “genocide Olympics.”
Some U.S. lawmakers are pushing for legislation to condemn Uyghur forced labor and genocide in Xinjiang, and they hope the Biden administration’s acknowledgment of Chinese abuses will encourage Democratic support in Congress. Still, foreign policy experts say that although the diplomatic boycott is a positive step, it represents missed opportunities for the Biden administration.
The United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, along with 64 other nations, when President Jimmy Carter was in office. The mass refusal to compete was a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This year’s diplomatic boycott is the first one over human rights, though the IOC expelled South Africa from 1964 to 1988 during apartheid.
One of President Donald Trump’s last acts in office was to declare a genocide in China based on reports of “reeducation camps” for Uyghur, Kazakh, and Tibetan minorities. Human rights organizations have reported up to 1.5 million people interned and tortured in the camps in Xinjiang. Escaped Uyghurs and family members have testified of forced abortions and sterilizations, sexual abuse, and punishment for practicing their religion. Independent reports confirmed the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Uyghurs meets every criteria in the United Nations Genocide Convention.
Some critics question whether the Biden administration is genuinely committed to sanctioning China over its human rights abuses. Earlier this week, Democrats blocked Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., from including his Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act as an amendment to the defense-authorization bill, a measure to sanction goods produced by forced labor in Xinjiang. The bill passed the Senate in July but has stalled since then. Rubio blamed corporate lobbying and pressure from the White House for its delay this summer, an accusation the White House has disputed.
Democrats attributed their stance to the procedural difficulties of including Rubio’s amendment in the defense plan. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., went so far as to call it a “poison pill” that could destroy the entire bill, according to The Washington Free Beacon.
Ultimately, Rubio partnered with Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., to submit essentially the same bill in standalone form to the House of Representatives again. It passed the House Wednesday on a 428-1 vote. The bill gives U.S. Customs and Border Protection authority to assume all imports from Xinjiang are from forced labor sources unless corporations can prove otherwise. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she hopes Congress will quickly pass the bipartisan legislation.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the White House firmly stands against the Uyghur genocide. Keeping diplomats home from the Olympics, she said, sends a strong message about that.
But Michael Mazza, a nonresident fellow in American Enterprise Institute’s Asia studies program, said the diplomatic boycott belies an “inconsistent and muddled” foreign policy approach. While the United States has spent more than 30 years trying to foster a cooperative relationship with China, Mazza said, the Communist regime’s treatment of ethnic minorities is the latest proof that the old approach needs to change: “There has been a recognition that the interests that drive the United States and China apart are far more weighty and significant than those interests that hold them together.”
Mazza would have preferred a postponement of the Games and a relocation to a different country. This move would have required expending significant political capital to convince the International Olympic Committee and ally governments to support a postponement—an effort Mazza said the Biden administration appeared unwilling to make.
Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies with the American Foreign Policy Council, called the diplomatic boycott a nice symbolic gesture. But he said the Biden administration’s delay in addressing Beijing’s long-planned hosting the Olympics reveals a discouraging tilt. When Biden took office in January 2020, he labeled climate change a top priority—an emphasis Sobolik said conflicts with human rights preservation. Xinjiang is a major producer of materials needed for solar panels, and international researchers blew the whistle on forced Uyghur and Kazakh labor used to produce the materials. Despite adding polysilicon from Xinjiang to the Labor Department list of goods produced by forced labor, the administration has reportedly lobbied against Rubio’s legislation.
“They want climate negotiation gains with China, and they’ve tipped their hand as to what they value more,” Sobolik said. “Sadly, it’s not human rights or preventing complicity with genocide.”
Sobolik pointed out it’s hard to send a strong message about an event to which the U.S. was not invited to begin with. After rumors surfaced that Biden was considering a diplomatic boycott, China withheld its invitation.
Former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, agreed that a diplomatic boycott is less forceful than relocating the Winter Games, but said the gesture might still effectively rebuke China.
“This will result in a loss of face for President Xi Jinping. We know that he wanted to use the Olympics to showcase that China’s a modern country, a superpower that knows how to organize things,” he told Canada’s National Post. “He was hoping that having foreign leaders there would confirm that, in fact, China has become so powerful that nobody would dare to criticize it.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington brushed off the boycott, saying that “no one would care” about the lack of dignitaries in Beijing when they are focused on the athletes.
Sobolik argued the U.S. government cannot both compete and cooperate with China without violating its own promises to defend human rights worldwide. One important policy step, he suggested, would be to sanction commerce running through Xinjiang to disincentivize the oppression of the people in that region.
Biden hosted a virtual democracy summit of 110 countries on Thursday to address democratic backsliding. The People’s Republic of China was not invited.
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