The 2022 Beijing Games Boycott, Explained

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is officially underway, with nearly 3,000 athletes competing in 109 events from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20. There has been no shortage of controversy in the Games. Several countries have declared a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, citing China’s alleged genocide against the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang province and a record of various human rights abuses by the host country.

What is China Accused of?

Allegations of committing atrocities against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities first emerged in 2017, after the establishment of internment camps in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Since then China has imprisoned more than one million Uyghurs in a large network of what they call “re-education camps.”

Satellite surveillance, testimony from former camp detainees, and investigative reporting have found evidence of forced labor, a mass sterilization campaign against Uyghur women, and torture. Former detainees have reported tortured and sexual assault. For those not directly detained in camps, life in Xinjiang has drastically changed. The Chinese government has used invasive surveillance techniques to track entire ethnic minority populations. The Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have labeled these abuses as human rights atrocities. Though the United Nations has consistently asked for the ability to investigate these abuses without interference from the Chinese government, they were only just recently granted permission

Who Else Boycotted?

In December, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the United States would not send an official delegation to the Beijing Games due to “the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” a move that was bipartisanly supported in the U. domestically. Though Team USA athletes would still be allowed to compete in the Games, Psaki said that this diplomatic boycott “could send a clear message” to China that the United States would not stand for its human rights violation.

Britain, Australia, Canada, and Japan soon joined the boycott. British MP Duncan Smith, representing the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, stated “We cannot lend any legitimacy to China’s despotic regime,” one that “commits industrial-scale human rights abuses in the Uyghur Region, Tibet, and sends near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s airspace.”

Denmark, Belgium, Estonia, and Lithuania have since announced their own diplomatic boycotts, following a nonbinding resolution passed by the European Union in 2021 calling for a boycott without “verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere in China.”

Who Did Not Boycott?

The vast majority of nations competing in the Olympics have not withdrawn their officials from the event. French President Emmanuel Macron even voiced disapproval of the boycott: “I don’t think we should politicize these topics, especially if it is to take steps that are insignificant and symbolic”. Similarly, South Korean President Moon Jae-In stated during his visit to Australia in December that Seoul has not considered participating in the diplomatic boycott, in contrast to his Australian counterpart. 

What Has Been China’s Response?

 China has consistently denied allegations of violating human rights in Xinjiang and other regions. In response to the American diplomatic boycott, the spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the U.N. accused the U.S. of “politicizing sports, creating divisions, and provoking confrontation”, warning that the U.S. “will pay a price for its erroneous actions”.

Though the consequences of the boycott have not been specified, the Chinese Foreign Ministry also stated that the U.S. had “clearly violated the Olympic spirit”, calling Washington’s move a “self-directed political farce”.  

Are These Boycotts a New Thing?

Both the United States and China have boycotted previous Olympic Games. , China has its own history of politicizing sports. It boycotted the Summer Olympics from 1952 to 1980 over questions of Taiwan’s participation, and restricted tourism to South Korea’s 2018 Games over a missile defense controversy.The United Statespreviously withdrew its athletes from the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

What is the Significance of the Boycott?

Some have argued that the recent diplomatic boycott will ironically depoliticize the 2022 Games by removing the presence of government officials, preventing the heightening of tensions between nations at the event. Others, however, interpret the move as a sign of “cold war mentality”, in which China may seek to boycott the 2028 Summer Olympics set to be held in Los Angeles, just as the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics following 1980.

For the United States, the diplomatic boycott is likely not intended to fundamentally alter China’s human rights policies. Rather, the U.S. seeks to take a strong stance in reiterating that it would not “contribute fanfare” to the “egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang”, said Psaki.

On the other hand, the boycott feeds a Chinese domestic narrative of “malevolent American hegemonic suppression of China’s rise”. China’s strategy may be to “weather the storm” surrounding accusations of human rights abuses leading up the Games, in the hopes of overshadowing negative media attention during and after the event. 

Oliver Gao is a freshman majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is from Vancouver, Canada.  

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