US President Joe Biden revealed that he is considering a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, as pressure from Congress intensifies over China’s suspected human rights abuses against the Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in the far-west Xinjiang region.
It is “something we are considering”, Biden said on Thursday, as he sat down for a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – the clearest indication yet that the administration may end up taking the rare step of refusing to send any government officials to an Olympic Games.
Any form of boycott against Beijing’s upcoming Olympics, set to begin on February 4, would be almost certain to infuriate Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
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Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that China does not allow foreign interference in Xinjiang and it is wrong to politicise the Games.
“The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the Paralympics are the stage for athletes from all over the world,” he said. “Politicising sports is against the Olympic spirit and harms the interests of athletes from all countries”.
Biden’s comment comes just days after he spent three and a half hours in a virtual meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, amid soaring tensions over trade, human rights, nuclear proliferation and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House said on Thursday that its upcoming decision on the Olympics had nothing to do with that meeting.
Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, said it was linked to human rights conditions in Xinjiang.
China is accused of enacting harsh forced assimilation policies against the region’s ethnic and religious minority population, rounding up scores of people in detention camps that Beijing says are job training centres, and subjecting many people to forced labour.
The Chinese government denies all allegations of human rights abuses, and says its policies in Xinjiang are helping lift the Uygur population out of poverty and fight extremism.
“There are areas that we do have concerns: human rights abuses,” Psaki said on Thursday. “We have serious concerns.”
There is widespread bipartisan support in Congress for a diplomatic boycott.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in May that “for heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats” would erase their moral authority to talk about human rights.
Other lawmakers have introduced legislation to try and force the administration into a diplomatic boycott if it does not do so on its own.
And still others say that a diplomatic boycott alone would not go far enough. Earlier on Thursday, Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of Beijing, called for a “complete and total boycott of China’s genocide Olympics” that would include US athletes.
Biden’s comments also come as Beijing faces growing condemnation over the case of the tennis star Peng Shuai who accused a former high-ranking official of sexually assaulting her.
News of the accusation has been heavily censored in China and Peng has not been heard from since she posted the allegations on social media.
State television network CGTN this week published a statement that it claimed was from Peng, purportedly stating that her own allegations were not true and that she was safe at home, but it was widely panned as a fraud.
Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association, said this week that CGTN’s action “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”.
The International Olympic Committee said it would not comment on Peng’s possible disappearance, because “experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature”.
On a potential US diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the IOC said: “We will not comment on political considerations of any government concerning their own activities.”
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