U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing to protest the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs, and Canada is considering following suit.
White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki announced Monday that U.S. officials will not attend the Olympics in February of next year. The reason, she said, is the Chinese government’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where human-rights groups say Uyghurs and other Turkic minority groups have been subjected to forced labour, forced sterilization and mass internment.
U.S. athletes will still compete in the Games, but no representatives of the U.S. government or diplomatic corps will be there.
“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human-rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply cannot do that,” Ms. Psaki told the daily White House media briefing.
She said Mr. Biden decided not to order a full boycott because it would be unfair to the U.S. Olympic team. “We didn’t feel it was the right step to penalize athletes,” she said.
The Canadian government said Monday it was considering joining the diplomatic boycott, but it has so far not taken action.
“Canada remains deeply disturbed by the troubling reports of human rights violations in China. To your question, we will continue to discuss this matter with our closest partners,” Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, said in a statement.
Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s Minister for Sport, told reporters the Canadian government is “very preoccupied with the violations of human-rights in China” and “as soon as we have made the decision we will communicate it.”
Tensions between China and the world’s democratic countries are mounting on a wide range of fronts.
In addition to criticism of its treatment of Uyghurs, Beijing has drawn international condemnation for its crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, its military provocations toward Taiwan and its violations of international trade rules. China’s recent testing of a hypersonic missile raised fears that the country could one day be capable of a surprise nuclear attack. And Chinese authorities have faced withering questions about the welfare of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player who disappeared for nearly three weeks last month after accusing Zhang Gaoli – a former high-ranking politician – of sexual assault.
The Chinese government threatened unspecified retaliation for Mr. Biden’s boycott.
“If the U.S. insists on willfully clinging to its course, China will take resolute countermeasures,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, told reporters. He said the boycott would “affect the dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States in important areas.”
Canada and several of its allies have already delivered a diplomatic snub to China over the Olympics. On Dec. 2, Canada opted not to sign a United Nations General Assembly resolution, commonly referred to as the Olympic Truce, that was co-sponsored by more than 170 other states. This Olympic resolution is by tradition put forward by the host of each coming Olympic Games, and all UN member states have the option of co-sponsoring it.
Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia were among the countries that opted not to co-sponsor the resolution this time.
After the resolution, David Messenger, a U.S. representative, told the General Assembly that the Chinese government has an obligation to “comply with their human-rights obligations and commitments, including those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to use these Olympic and Paralympic Games to take steps to build a peaceful and better world.”
Even as he rebukes Beijing, Mr. Biden appears to be trying to find a balance between confrontation and cooperation. He has said he wants to work with China on climate change while also taking its leaders to task on human rights, trade and security.
At a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, Mr. Biden warned that all countries have to “play by the same rules of the road.” A few days later, at a “Three Amigos” summit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mr. Biden said he wanted to “prove democracies can deliver” in the face of rising global authoritarianism.
Mr. Xi, meanwhile, has signalled his hope that Mr. Biden will not confront China. “China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation,” he said during his video-link meeting with Mr. Biden.
Mr. Biden will once again risk provoking China later this week by hosting a virtual summit on democracy, to which he has invited Taiwan. The island is a de facto self-governing democracy, but Beijing considers it a renegade province.
The U.S. has not boycotted an Olympics since 1980, when then-president Jimmy Carter pulled out of the Moscow Summer Games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Dozens of other countries, including Canada, also boycotted. In that case, the U.S. and Canada engaged in a full boycott, not allowing their athletes to participate.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole urged Canada to conduct a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
“We’ve been proposing moving the Games, but there wasn’t any interest [from] the Trudeau government in that. We proposed a diplomatic boycott. I think that is the best thing we can do alongside our allies to show pressure and not to make the athletes pay the price for the conduct of Beijing,” he said.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said a diplomatic boycott is the least Canada can do. He added that the West should have used the COVID-19 pandemic to campaign for a postponement of the Beijing Games, and then used the delay to press China over its crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. “Canada and the U.S. could have offered to jointly host the Winter Games,” he said.
Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said Mr. Biden’s boycott appeared to be calculated to mollify critics at home.
“It’s the kind of move that will satisfy some critics in the United States that Biden is too soft … but it will not completely alienate the Chinese population, who really want to see the U.S. athletes,” she said.
Lhadon Tethong, co-chair of the International Tibet Network, told The Globe a diplomatic boycott was “a good start but not good enough.”
“At a minimum right now, the Canadian government, the U.S. government and their allies, absolutely should not be going to these Games,” she said. “But it has to send a message that these Games cannot be treated like any other, and it can’t be a green light for sponsors and National Olympic Committees that the government has done the heavy lifting and they can still go to Beijing.”
“The problem from the beginning was everyone was looking for a really neat and tidy solution that would allow the games to go ahead and the athletes to compete,” Ms. Tethong said.
She pointed out that the Biden administration’s own announcement, which highlighted China’s alleged genocide in Xinjiang as well as crackdowns in Hong Kong and elsewhere, should have been sufficient signal to other stakeholders “that things are so bad that these Games should not be happening.”
“I will never get my head around why the Olympic Games matter so much more than the fundamental right of people to exist or be free,” Ms. Tethong added.
She also raised concern over how willing and able governments and National Olympic Committees will be to protect athletes who intend to go to the Games and stage a political protest, given the current climate in the wake of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s alleged detention.