Report: Biden to order diplomatic boycott of 2022 Beijing Olympics

AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Jay L. Clendenin, Pool

An iron law of American politics in 2021 is that every issue can and will be insanely hyper-polarized by activists beyond all reason.

But I’m having trouble imagining how this one will.

It’s the perfect middle-ground option, no? Americans dislike the idea of a total boycott in which our athletes are forced to stay home since that would deprive them of their dream, reducing them to pawns in a diplomatic game. It would also play into China’s hands to some degree. The Soviets cleaned up at 1980 Moscow Olympics thanks to America’s absence. If you want to make Beijing cringe, let the U.S. team show up and win a bunch of gold, forcing the Chinese to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” repeatedly.

But we can’t look the other way at China’s growing menace, from its subjugation of Hong Kong to its internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang to its catastrophic deception about the threat from COVID at the start of the pandemic. A protest must be registered. How?

Solution: Let the athletes compete but keep American dignitaries home. No gladhanding. Josh Rogin of WaPo says the announcement is coming soon.

Although the administration technically has not finalized this decision, a formal recommendation has been made to the president and he is expected to approve it before the end of the month, administration sources confirmed. The timing of this process was not linked to the Biden-Xi virtual meeting Monday evening, which was billed as a way for the two leaders to demonstrate their ability to manage complex U.S.-China relations in an era of rising tensions. Various reports this week have said that Xi Jinping intended to bring up the Olympics issue with Biden, perhaps even inviting him to personally attend. But the issue didn’t come up at all during the 3½-hour meeting, according to initial reports.

“President Biden raised concerns about the [People’s Republic of China’s] practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, as well as human rights more broadly,” the White House readout of the Biden-Xi meeting stated…

In 2007, President George W. Bush also tried to thread the needle. He accepted then-Chinese President Hu Jintao’s invitation to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, despite an ongoing crackdown in Tibet. But Bush affirmed his support for human rights inside China in 2007 by hosting the Dalai Lama in Washington and awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal.

If Xi had invited Biden personally during last night’s virtual summit, what would Biden have said?

When I say that this move is likely to draw bipartisan support, I’m not speculating. In July a group of House lawmakers led by Republican Michael Waltz and Democrat Tom Malinowski proposed a diplomatic boycott of the Games as a condition of funding the State Department. A month earlier, none other than Nancy Pelosi testified at a House hearing that diplomats from around the world should stay away from the Olympics. “For heads of state to go to China, in light of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats, really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide?” she said. That wasn’t the first time she’s called for boycotting China’s OIympics either. In 2008 she encouraged George W. Bush to do so, to no avail.

The idea also has prominent Republican supporters. Here’s Olympic organizer turned GOP presidential nominee turned senator Mitt Romney, who endorsed a diplomatic boycott back in March — and more:

The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. 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.

The chair of the Uyghur Human Rights Project also endorsed a diplomatic boycott this past summer to protest China’s abuse of Muslims in Xinjiang. In fact, he wanted the Games withdrawn from Beijing or a global boycott if they went ahead (“The international community must ensure the Olympic Games does not take place in the shadow of concentration camps once again”) but was willing to condone a diplomatic boycott as a lesser measure. “The three values of Olympism are excellence, friendship, and respect,” wrote Nury Turkel. “The CCP’s mendacity and ruthless disregard for human life make it entirely unsuitable as a host for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Pretty straightforward. Just one question: Will a boycott by diplomats achieve anything useful?

It’s a feelgood measure. China is a sinister actor, it gets away with murder (literally) because of its economic power, and keeping Americans away from the Games is the least we can do to recognize it. But the snub will also raise tensions between our country and theirs at a moment when China has its eye on Taiwan. An exchange in which we flip them the bird by avoiding the Olympics and they end up attacking Taipei later this year feels like not a great trade.

Even so, the boycott will be popular. American public opinion has soured on China within both parties (especially Republicans), and how could it not have after the past two years? Even if Biden were reluctant to order a diplomatic boycott, he needs the good vibes here at home after three months of watching his popularity slide. Besides, the boycott will do some meaningful good by calling Americans’ attention to China’s abuses, which may make consumers more sensitive to U.S. businesses that enable them. If corporations are shamed into rethinking their financial relationships in China by the fallout from the boycott, that’s a good outcome. Not one that’s going to improve U.S.-China relations, but a confrontation sooner or later is probably already inevitable.