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  1. International Politics
8 December 2021

The US is boycotting the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. China’s not happy.

Chinese officials have condemned Joe Biden’s decision but could other countries follow suit?

By Megan Gibson

The US president Joe Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics. China, unsurprisingly, has not taken the announcement well.

Though a boycott had been rumoured for several weeks, Biden’s administration formally announced on 6 December that the US would not be sending an official delegation to the event in February 2022 in light of China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang”, where Uyghur Muslims have been persecuted.

Unlike the US’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, this move does not prevent American athletes from competing at the Games. “The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, confirmed in her press briefing on 6 December. “We will be behind them 100 per cent as we cheer them on from home.” (Spectators from the US were already unlikely to attend the event as China has strict Covid-19 travel measures in place and is only allowing spectators already in the country.)

[See also: How big could the Olympic boycott get?]

The response to the boycott from Chinese foreign officials and commentators has ranged from outrage to feigned indifference to petty sniping.

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“The wrong move of the US has undermined the foundation and atmosphere for China-US sports exchanges and Olympic cooperation,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, at a press briefing on 7 December. “[The US] has shot itself in the foot. The US should understand the grave consequences of its move.” Zhao didn’t specify what the consequences would entail.

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Meanwhile, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, tweeted: “Politicians calling for boycott #2022BeijingOlympics are doing so for their own political interests and posturing. In fact, no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the #Beijing2022 to be successfully held.”

Then there’s Chen Weihua, a journalist for Beijing mouthpiece China Daily, who responded to the US president’s announcement with the following: “You’re not invited and not welcome, Mr Biden. Hope you will live long enough to see China boycotting Los Angeles Summer Games in 2028.” Biden, who turned 79 on 20 November, would be 85 by the time of the LA Games. 

Yet despite the chorus of voices criticising the US’s decision or, indeed, claiming not to care, Beijing won’t be happy if a flood of other countries follow Biden’s lead – as Australia did on 8 December. Other Western nations such as the UK and Canada have previously reported that they are considering whether to join a boycott, while New Zealand and Lithuania have already said they will not be sending ministerial representatives to the Games. (It is notable, however, that Canada has been on the receiving end of Chinese economic boycotts in recent years – and it’s likely not eager to risk retaliation.)

Even the US’s decision marks a notable shift for Biden, who held his first virtual summit with China’s president Xi Jinping just a few weeks ago. Although the official read-out afterwards indicated that human rights were central to the conversation, there was little to indicate that the discussion was hostile. More to the point, just over a month ago, Biden and the rest of the G20 leaders meeting in Rome released a declaration stating, “We look ahead to Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics 2022, as opportunities for competition for athletes from around the world, which serves as a symbol of humanity’s resilience.”

Yet recent weeks have seen international backlash to China’s government over the disappearance of former tennis star Peng Shuai. After the 35-year-old Peng accused China’s former vice-premier of sexual assault, she vanished from the public eye. Though she’s since spoken with members of the International Olympic Committee via video link, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) hasn’t been satisfied of her safety, and on 1 December suspended its activity in China. The US has indicated it fully supports the WTA’s decision.

Whether or not other Western countries follow its lead, the US is certain to find itself in a tricky spot come February. Even if China’s threat to take countermeasures doesn’t come to anything, America will now need to tread the fine line between not indulging in the “fanfare of the Games”, while also supporting the US athletes (and revelling in the soft power afforded by the high medal count it typically enjoys). Let the diplomatic games begin.

[See also: Why tennis star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo allegation is such a threat to China’s leaders]