The Biden administration said Monday it will not send an official U.S. delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, launching a "diplomatic boycott" aimed at rebuking China over its human rights abuses.
The decision represents a major geopolitical snub and comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
"The athletes on Team USA have our full support," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. "We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home. (But) we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games."
Psaki cited China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses" as primary reasons for the move. She said the administration did not want to prevent athletes from competing but still wanted to signal its disapproval of China's actions.
"It cannot be business as usual," Psaki later added.
The U.S. traditionally sends a roster of high-profile dignitaries, often led by the sitting vice president or the first lady, to attend Olympic events – including the opening and closing ceremonies. First lady Jill Biden led the U.S. delegation to the most recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Human rights groups had lobbied the White House to push for a full-scale athlete boycott of the 2022 Games, but such a decision rests solely with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which declined to entertain the idea.
"We greatly appreciate the unwavering support of the President and his administration and we know they will be cheering us on from home this winter," USOPC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland said in a statement. "Competing on behalf of the United States is an honor and a privilege, and Team USA is excited and ready to make the nation proud."
The International Olympic Committee said it "fully respects" the White House's decision.
"The presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects," the IOC said in a statement. "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."
It was not immediately clear if any U.S. allies will follow the Biden administration's lead. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are among the countries that are also said to be considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games, which begin Feb. 4.
While the White House's decision falls short of a complete athlete boycott, it is still a sharp rebuke that is likely to infuriate Chinese officials.
Hours before the White House's announcement, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that such a move would result in "firm countermeasures."
Proponents of a boycott have said that China will use the Games as a propaganda tool, and the dazzling spectacle will give Beijing a stamp of international legitimacy to continue its campaign of repression.
Biden's own advisers have said China is engaging in "genocide" against the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China's Xinjiang region. Xi Jinping's government has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in "re-education" and labor camps in Xinjiang.
Washington has also expressed alarm over China's crackdown on Hong Kong, where a pro-democracy movement has been quashed, and Beijing's threats against Taiwan's independence, which it sees as a breakaway province.
Chinese officials have brushed off the U.S. criticism as foreign meddling in domestic affairs. China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is "about terrorism and separatism, not about human rights," Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said earlier this year.
China has also come under intense scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault allegations made by tennis star Peng Shuai.
Shuai disappeared from public view after accusing Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, of forcing her to have sex with him. The Chinese government scrubbed her social media post about the incident from her account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, and scrubbed all other references to her name online.
Joanne Lin, National Director for Advocacy and Government Relations at Amnesty International USA, praised the Biden administration's decision, calling it a blow to the impunity of the Chinese authorities."
"The Chinese government’s perpetuation and condoning of human rights abuses – from the dismantling of free expression in Hong Kong to the repression of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other minorities, to blatant attempts to silence survivors of sexual abuse – must be met with unequivocal condemnation and demands for justice," Lin said in a statement.
Past Olympic boycotts
This is not the first time the U.S. has used the Olympic Games to register objections to a host country's policies.
American athletes boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow under pressure from President Jimmy Carter, who viewed the boycott as a sanction after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Dozens of other countries joined the U.S. in its boycott, and the Soviet Union responded with its own boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Many U.S. athletes were furious over the decision to boycott, and a group of them even filed a lawsuit against the USOPC, seeking to overturn it.
In 2014, then-President Barack Obama declined to send the vice president, first lady or any of his Cabinet secretaries to the Sochi Games. Instead, the U.S. delegation included two openly gay athletes, an apparent rebuke of Russia's anti-gay laws.
Contributing: Michael Collins; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2022 Winter Olympics: Biden announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing