U.S. Senate pledges diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics

United States lawmakers have pledged a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics as part of a wide-ranging China-focused bill passed by the Senate this week.

The bill commits roughly $250 billion to competing with China in scientific realms, but also commits to foreign policy initiatives, and to sanctioning China for its human rights abuses, including the alleged detention and oppression of over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Among the commitments is Section 3312, tucked away amid thousands of pages.

“It shall be the policy of the United States,” the section opens, “to implement a diplomatic boycott of the [2022] Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games … and to call for an end to the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing human rights abuses, including the Uyghur genocide.”

In practice, the bill forbids Secretary of State Antony Blinken from using “federal funds to support or facilitate the attendance of … any employee of the United States government” at the Games – though it also includes the caveat that Blinken may waive the pledge “in a circumstance in which the Secretary determines a waiver is the national interest.”

Blinken himself has remained noncommittal on a boycott. "We're consulting very closely with allies and partners to look at the common concerns that we have, and ideally to establish a common approach,” he told a Congressional hearing on Monday. A coordinated strategy, he said, “will be much more effective than doing something on our own.”

President Joe Biden has also refused to commit to any action related to the Beijing Olympics, which begin in less than eight months, on Feb. 4, 2022. But on Tuesday, Biden applauded the Senate for passing the China bill, and said: "I look forward to working with the House of Representatives on this important bipartisan legislation, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as possible."

The Senate approved the bill on Tuesday by a 68-32 vote. It could face hurdles in the House, where lawmakers have drafted their own versions of China-focused bills. The boycott pledge, though, is expected to remain in whatever legislation reaches Biden’s desk. In fact, Politico reported this week that Democrats on the House’s Foreign Affairs panel have agreed to “add clearer language to call for a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also come out in favor of a diplomatic boycott. 

“Let’s not honor the Chinese government by having heads of state go to China," Pelosi said Tuesday. "For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing – while you’re sitting there in your seat – really begs the question, what moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world? Silence is inexcusable.”

At a Tuesday news briefing, Zhao Lijian, China's foreign ministry spokesman, said "China firmly opposes any U.S. initiatives to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics under the pretext of so-called human rights issues."

U.S. Senators outline positions on boycott

The Beijing Games also arose at a Thursday Senate joint subcommittee hearing on China’s oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who co-sponsored the boycott section of the bill, prefaced comments with a clarification that he and Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another co-sponsor, were not calling for an athlete boycott. The bill specifies that the withholding of federal funds does not apply to support for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, national sports governing bodies, athletes or staff.

But Kaine laid out his position: “We were of the opinion that an Olympics would create an opportunity around the world to focus attention on China, and in that frame of attention, we might do things to grab the world’s attention, and demonstrate more vividly to everyone the atrocities that are being conducted against Uyghurs.”

Romney, in a March editorial, wrote that “the right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics,” because it would “reduce China’s revenues, shut down their propaganda, and expose their abuses”:

“American spectators — other than families of our athletes and coaches — should stay at home, preventing us from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets. American corporations that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games should send them to U.S. venues instead.

“Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us.

“An economic and diplomatic boycott should include collaboration with NBC, which has already done important work to reveal the reality of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and brutality. NBC can refrain from showing any jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies and instead broadcast documented reports of China’s abuses.

“We should enlist our friends around the world to join our economic boycott. Limiting spectators, selectively shaping our respective delegations and refraining from broadcasting Chinese propaganda would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics.”

Many experts, including Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch who testified at Thursday’s hearing, agree with Romney’s position. Senator Kaine asked Richardson for her advice on how the U.S. government “can use this moment of attention to dramatize what China would prefer to keep hidden.”

“If you were to have a hearing with U.S.-based companies on human rights due diligence and China, I would certainly get NBC and a number of the other U.S.-based companies here to explain how they are making sure that their engagement in the Olympics doesn’t contribute to violations,” Richardson said, in part. Seven of the IOC’s 15 top corporate sponsors – AirBNB, Coca Cola, Dow, General Electric, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, and Visa – are American companies.

Expert witness chides IOC

Richardson also referenced International Olympic Committee rules that limit athletes’ freedom of expression, including a rule that prohibits demonstrations during competition or Olympic ceremonies.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports earlier this year, Richardson, among others, said she’d fear reprisal from Chinese authorities if an Olympic athlete did criticize China’s human rights record. The IOC has refused to directly answer questions about whether it would protect an athlete who spoke out. Therefore, Richardson said, “governments are going to have to do a lot more work in a consular sense before people go to these Games, [and] also be on deck to help people if they do run into trouble.”

The U.S. Senate bill does stipulate that the withholding of funds does not apply to “consular services or security” for U.S. athletes, nor other services that would “protect the health, safety, and welfare of United States persons, employees, contractors, and their families.”

Richardson said Thursday that the one piece of Romney’s position that she disagreed with was “his recall to the IOC, and the idea of having a heart-to-heart with that institution.”

“I think that would require finding that the IOC has a heart,” she said, drawing laughs from subcommittee members. “I have interacted with few institutions that had [more] power to make positive change and flatly refused to do so, and spent a lot of energy denying that it had the ability to do so."

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