China has reacted angrily to the US government’s diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics, as more countries said they would consider joining the protest over Beijing’s human rights record and New Zealand announced it would not send representatives to the Games.
Chinese officials dismissed Washington’s boycott as a “political posturing and manipulation” and tried to discredit the decision by claiming that US diplomats had not even been invited to Beijing in the first place.
“The US should stop politicising sports, and stop disrupting and undermining the Beijing Winter Olympics, lest it should affect bilateral dialogue and cooperation in important areas and international and regional issues,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned.
The White House confirmed on Monday that it would not send any official or diplomatic representatives to the Winter Games and Paralympics in February, “given the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China’s] ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses”.
“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”
On Tuesday, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson, confirmed the country would not send diplomatic representatives at a ministerial level. Robertson cited Covid-19 as the primary reason “but we’ve made clear to China on numerous occasions our concerns about human rights issues”, he said.
The UK, Canada, and Australia have said they were considering their positions. Last week, Lithuania, which is facing trade and diplomatic hostilities from China over its growing relationship with Taiwan, announced neither its president nor ministers would attend the Games.
Chinese officials responded to the US announcement with outrage and also pre-emptive dismissal. Liu Xiaoming, the former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said the Olympics were “not a stage for political posturing and manipulation”.
“US politicians keep hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games. This wishful thinking and pure grandstanding is aimed at political manipulation,” he said.
“It is a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic Charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people. It will only make the Chinese people and the world see clearly US politicians’ anti-China nature and hypocrisy.”
Liu’s tweets mirrored the language of several other Chinese officials before and after the announcement.
China’s embassy in Washington dismissed the boycott as “a pretentious act” and a “political manipulation”.
Earlier on Monday, Zhao accused Washington of “hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games”, and threatened unspecified “resolute countermeasures” if a boycott was announced.
Asked by journalists what Beijing’s countermeasures would be in response to Washington’s decision on Tuesday, Zhao said: “The US will pay a price for its erroneous actions. You may wait and see.”
Law professor Margaret Lewis, a China specialist at Seton Hall law, said the boycott raised questions about how broadcasters like NBC will respond to China’s presentation of itself, particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Lewis pointed at Psaki’s statement on the US not “contributing to the fanfare” of the Games.
“This is the key here – how the US will express that enthusiastic support for the athletes and not detract from their moment of Olympic glory, while also taking a strong principled stance on human rights,” she said. “It’s a doable task but it’s a hard line to walk.”
A US boycott had the support of senior legislators including Republican Mitt Romney and the Democrat Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Boycott calls have intensified in recent months, as dozens of world governments mull how to respond to Beijing’s continued crackdown on ethnic minorities in China, its intervention on Hong Kong, and other human rights issues. Demands have further escalated over the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who was not seen for almost three weeks after posting to social media an accusation of sexual assault against Chinese former vice-premier. She was later shown on state media to be in Beijing, but there remain widespread concerns about her wellbeing and level of freedom.
Rights groups welcomed the US announcement and called for other governments to follow suit.
Mark Clifford, the president of the UK-based advocacy group Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, said global leaders had been “shown the way” by the US.
“Work with the US and Lithuania and take up the only morally justifiable course of action by implementing diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – or accept that you are endorsing some of the most horrific abuses inflicted upon a population by their own government in modern times,” he said.
The last time the US staged an Olympics boycott was the 1980 Moscow games, alongside 64 other countries and territories in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.