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White House Orders Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Games

The United States will not be dispatching an official delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games early next year, the White House announced Monday, citing a desire to hold China accountable for human-rights abuses against the Turkic Muslim community in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was sending a “clear message” that “business” can no longer function “as usual” amid “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the region, where the ruling Communist Party is believed to have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in camps and prisons as part of a broader crackdown on their religious and cultural way of life.

The decision stops short of a full boycott, meaning American athletes will still be permitted to compete. Rather, the Biden administration will not be “contributing to the fanfare of the games,” Psaki said. The last time the White House staged a full boycott of the Olympics was in 1980, when the United States and 60 other nations refused to compete in the Moscow Summer Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“​​The athletes on Team U.S.A have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent, as we cheer them on from home,” she added. “I don’t think we felt it was the right step to penalize athletes who have been training, preparing for this moment and felt we could send a clear message by not sending an official U.S. delegation.”

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Since the snub will be “largely symbolic,” Matt Powell, senior industry advisor, sports, at NPD Group, told Sourcing Journal that he doesn’t expect it to have a “material impact on sports brands.” It may set off another wave of anti-American sentiment, however, which could “certainly hurt” brands such as Nike following the battering to their bottom lines from previous state-sanctioned consumer backlashes.

The move will also further tax the United States’ already strained relations with China, which threatened to take “resolute countermeasures” if the United States is “bent on having its own way” with politicizing sports.

“I want to stress that the Winter Olympic Games is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation,” Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference Monday in response to reports that a boycott announcement was imminent. “U.S. politicians keep hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games. This wishful thinking and pure grandstanding is aimed at political manipulation. It is a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Beijing 2022, the Olympics host committee, said in a statement last month that it “has been upholding its commitment to hosting the Games in an open manner, and has been welcoming people from all walks of life and from all countries…to participate in the Games in their own ways.”

Whether other nations will follow remains to be seen. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are reportedly mulling boycotts of their own, though no decision has been made.

In July, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution calling on European Union officials and member states to decline all government and diplomatic invitations to the Beijing Games “unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human-rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.” Stefano Sannino, chief of the European Union’s diplomatic service, told reporters Friday after meetings with U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., however, that while it’s important to maintain pressure on China over conditions in Xinjiang, the decision to attend falls to individual member states and not to blanket EU policy.

The shunning of the Olympics comes as the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to consider a bill that would ban all imports from Xinjiang on the “rebuttable presumption” that they’re made using forced labor.

“Next week is an important week for human rights,” Representative Jim McGovern, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters Thursday, suggesting that voting could begin in a matter of days. “We think it’s important to move some China legislation, hopefully much of it focused on human rights. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, we want to see that get over the finish line in some form.”

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act sailed through the Senate in July, though its journey to President Biden’s desk has since been fraught, with Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently demanding that the measure be included as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, pushing back the Senate’s deliberation of the massive spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has tried to strip Rubio’s amendment, arguing that because it involves revenue, it requires a House vote first.

The Washington Post, citing Biden administration officials, also reported Thursday that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill, in October that the White House wanted to water down the language in the bill, enabling lawmakers to take “a more targeted and deliberative approach” to decide which items would be verboten in the United States.

But Psaki, speaking to reporters Friday, said that the White House is “absolutely not lobbying in any way against the passage of this bill.”

“There are negotiations and discussions between members of Congress. The executive branch often offers Congress technical advice to make legislation effective and implementable by the agencies responsible,” she said. “Those are the conversations that are happening. But we absolutely support and have been advocates for doing more to hold—to put in place accountability here.”