The White House has confirmed it will stage a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in the latest move that will further widen the rift in an already strained bilateral relationship.
“The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” press secretary Jen Psaki said from the briefing room podium on Monday.
The announcement comes two months before the games are to begin. American athletes are still expected to compete in the Olympics, despite the Biden administration not sending any representatives to Beijing.
“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” Psaki said. “We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games.”
The US staged a full boycott of the Olympics was during the cold war in 1980, when the former president Jimmy Carter snubbed the Moscow summer Games along with 64 other countries and territories, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.
The Soviet Union, in turn, protested against the US’s move by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles summer Olympics with its allies.
Psaki said administration officials made Beijing aware of the move before Monday’s announcement. “We feel this sends a clear message,” she said.
Hours before the announcement, China said a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics would be “a stain on the spirit of the Olympic charter” and “sensationalist and politically manipulative”.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, on Monday accused Washington of “hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games”.
“I want to stress that the Winter Olympic Games is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation,” Zhao said. “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.”
Zhao also threatened “resolute countermeasures” if a boycott was announced.
The US diplomatic boycott comes amid escalating tensions between China and many western countries. It was first raised by Joe Biden last month as pressures grew in the US Congress over its concerns about China’s human rights record, including over the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
Politicians including Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, have advocated a boycott as protest.
The calls for the boycott intensified in recent weeks after concerns rose over the treatment of the Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai. The 35-year-old former doubles world No 1 last month accused a former senior Chinese politician of having coerced her into sex.
Countries from the US to Australia have since called on China’s authorities to ensure Peng’s wellbeing, and the Women’s Tennis Association last week announced the suspension of future games in China.
Rights groups have also seized on the opportunity to urge the international community to boycott the Beijing Olympics.
In the UK, the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told MPs last month that “no tickets have been booked” for the Beijing Games in February. But he also added that the UK government “have long had a policy of thinking that sporting boycotts do not work and that it is a matter for the International Olympic Committee to decide whether the athletes go.”
The Foreign Office said on Monday that “no decisions have yet been made” about the government’s attendance at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Reacting to the White House’s decision, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy urged the government “to finally take a stand”.
In Australia, Canberra last week joined 19 other countries in not signing the Olympic Truce – a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece and ensures conflicts do not disrupt the sports competition – with China in order to send a message to Beijing.
On Friday, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said his government “was considering those matters and working through those issues”.
Zhao on Monday said in response to Morrison’s comments that “no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the Olympics to be successfully held by Beijing”.