The U.S. will stage a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing to protest Chinese human rights abuses, the White House confirmed Monday — a move that China has vowed to greet with "firm counter-measures."
"U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the [People's Republic of China's] egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can't do that," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a briefing Monday.
She said U.S. athletes will continue to compete and will "have our full support," but added that "we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games."
"We have a fundamental commitment to promoting human rights, and we feel strongly in our position. And we will continue to take actions to advance human rights in China and beyond," Psaki said.
Canada's minister of sport, Pascale St-Onge, said the government has yet to decide whether it will engage in a similar boycott of the Games, which begin on Feb. 4, 2022.
"We are, of course, very preoccupied with the violations of human rights in China. It's not a decision that we're going to take lightly, and as soon as we have made the decision, we will communicate it to you," she said.
The International Olympic Committee in a statement called the decision to keep dignitaries away from the Games a "political decision for each government" that it "fully respects."
"At the same time, this announcement also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this," the IOC said.
U.S. President Joe Biden this week will host a White House Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of leaders and civil society experts from more than 100 countries that is set to take place Thursday and Friday.
The administration has said that Biden intends to use the convening "to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad."
Boycott 'a necessary step'
Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee and a Democratic senator from New Jersey, called such a diplomatic boycott "a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government's unconscionable abuses."
He called on "other allies and partners that share our values to join with the United States in this diplomatic boycott."
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, however, said the diplomatic boycott amounted to a "half-measure."
U.S. officials, including Biden, have criticized Beijing for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest Xinjiang province, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against the self-ruled island of Taiwan and more.
President Donald Trump's administration in its final days declared the abuses in northwest China "genocide."
"The United States should fully boycott the Genocide Games in Beijing," Cotton said. "American businesses should not financially support the Chinese Communist Party and we must not expose Team USA to the dangers of a repugnant authoritarian regime that disappears its own athletes."
Cotton appeared to be referring to former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who dropped from sight after publicly accusing a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault. Concerns over her safety prompted the Women's Tennis Association to suspend events in China and provided added fuel to opponents of China's hosting of the Games.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused U.S. politicians of grandstanding over the issue of not sending dignitaries to attend events that China hopes will showcase its economic development and technological prowess.
Speaking to reporters at a daily briefing, Zhao said such a move would be an "outright political provocation" but gave no details on how China might retaliate.
Human rights advocates and lawmakers in the U.S. who support a boycott say it is a necessary step. They cite China's poor record on human rights as justification, saying China is using the Games to whitewash its ill treatment of civil rights activists, political dissidents and ethnic minorities.
"Without being invited, American politicians keep hyping the so-called diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is purely wishful thinking and grandstanding," Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. "If the U.S. side is bent on going its own way, China will take firm counter-measures."
The dispatching of high-level delegations to each Olympics has long been a tradition among the U.S. and other leading nations. Then-President George W. Bush attended the opening of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. First lady Jill Biden led the American contingent to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year, and Doug Emhoff, Vice-President Kamala Harris's husband, led a delegation to the Paralympic Games.
U.S. attempts to stabilize relations with Beijing
News of the diplomatic boycott comes as the U.S. attempts to stabilize turbulent relations with Beijing, even as it maintains a tough approach toward trade and conflicts over China's actions on Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
Beijing has mounted a stiff response to all U.S. criticisms, denouncing them as interference in its internal affairs and slapping visa bans on American politicians it regards as anti-China.
It wasn't clear who the U.S. might have sent to Beijing for the Games, and Zhao's comments appeared to indicate that China has not extended any invitations.
Australia, whose ties with China have nosedived over a range of disputes, has also raised the possibility of a diplomatic boycott.
With files from CBC News
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