White House defends sending American athletes to Beijing Olympics

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WASHINGTON — The White House announced on Monday a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics, defending the measure as a sufficient response to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority who are being imprisoned in forced labor camps.

Some wanted the Biden administration, which has highlighted the importance of the rule of law at home and abroad, to send a stronger message by not sending any athletes to China next year, much as the Carter administration did in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before.

“There should be a full boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said after the announcement.

It was White House press secretary Jen Psaki who revealed the widely expected move. As she did so, she defended the decision to send athletes — but not to have dignitaries accompany them, as custom would usually dictate.

“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,” she said during Monday’s press briefing, even as she condemned China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sterilizations, rape and torture have also been described by witnesses and survivors. The consistency of those descriptions leaves little disagreement in American politics that Xinjiang is the site of gross human rights violations. There is disagreement, however, as to what kind of response those violations merit at this volatile moment in relations between the world’s two most prominent powers.

Genocide is a term that carries specific connotations, having to do with systematic murder of an entire population. Earlier this year, the Biden administration recognized the murder of more than a million Armenians in Turkey a century ago as “genocide,” the culmination of a decades-long effort to earn that designation.

As one of his last significant acts in office, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo determined that the treatment of the Uyghurs did rise to the level of genocide. Two months later, his successor Antony Blinken issued a statement with his British and Canadian counterparts condemning “China’s human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang” — but avoided the term “genocide.”

Demonstrators protest in front of the White House
Human rights demonstrators protest in front of the White House in advance of President Biden's virtual summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s so-far unpunished treatment of the Uyghurs presents a challenge to that narrative, forcing the Biden administration to either stand on principle and risk a diplomatic row with a rival military power and critical trade partner, or make concessions on human rights that could weaken the promise of a renewed commitment to values-driven diplomacy.

“We feel this sends a clear message,” Psaki said of the move, which appears to reside in a middle ground between doing nothing and pulling out of the Olympics altogether.

Turkish NBA Player Enes Kanter
Turkish NBA Player Enes Kanter at a New York City news conference about his detention at a Romanian airport, May 22, 2017. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Biden for making what he described as “the obvious choice,” which he hoped other nations would make.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, have emerged as the Uyghurs’ most vociferous champions, having introduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban goods made by Uyghur forced labor from the American marketplace.

The bill passed the Senate but is now stalled in the House of Representatives. Nor does it appear to have much support from the executive branch, which is trying to approach China gingerly.

Popular sentiment could complicate that effort. The professional basketball player Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics has criticized the National Basketball Association for not standing up to China, which has emerged as a huge market for the sport. To show his solidarity with the Uyghurs, Kanter — who has also condemned the genocide of Armenians in Turkey, where his family hails from — changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom.

John Kerry
Climate envoy John Kerry at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 12, 2021. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., recently issued a report that described China’s Han majority as harboring increasingly genocidal attitudes towards the Uyghurs. Such attitudes hold that a group must be eradicated for the health of the state. Although the Holocaust remains the most notorious act of genocide in human history, there have recently been genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The Olympics have frequently been politically fraught. In 1936, the United States sent athletes to Germany, effectively legitimating Hitler’s regime at a time when it was preparing for World War II. Later, the United States was accused of acting too slowly to stop the Holocaust, despite having been made aware that the Nazis were intent on extermination.

The State Department has reportedly lobbied against pressing China too much on the Uyghur issue, lest the East Asian superpower turn uncooperative on other matters.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has been adamant on a moderate approach as he tries to cajole the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter into taking more aggressive action to combat climate change, recently describing China’s human rights violations as “not my lane.” Uyghurs are involved in the production of polysilicon, a component crucial to China’s powerful solar panel industry.

In response to the diplomatic boycott, China said that the United States should expect “firm countermeasures.” There were no specifics.