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Politics

President Biden announces a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

No government officials from the U.S. will attend the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing. Athletes can still participate, but yesterday, President Biden ordered a diplomatic boycott of the games. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was in response to genocide in China's Xinjiang region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC's egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang. And we simply can't do that.

ELLIOTT: China has threatened, quote, "firm countermeasures," though it hasn't yet said just what they would be. Joining us now to discuss what all this means is Mike Mazza. He's a fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Good morning.

MIKE MAZZA: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So since athletes are still going to compete in the Beijing Olympics, what actual tangible effect will this diplomatic boycott have?

MAZZA: Probably little tangible effect. This is a symbolic move in order to express U.S. displeasure and U.S. concern with, you know, what are really horrible human rights abuses happening in western China right now.

ELLIOTT: What else could the U.S. do to try to force China to improve its human rights record?

MAZZA: Yeah. So the United States probably should have launched an effort years ago to get these games moved. It's within the contractual rights of the IOC. And given the ongoing genocide that Psaki pointed to yesterday, that would have been a reasonable thing to do. It's too late to do something like that. In my opinion, instead of a diplomatic boycott in which no U.S. officials go at all, the Biden administration should be sending a delegation comprised entirely of U.S. officials concerned with human rights and democracy issues. That would have presented a way and a great opportunity to be out in front of international media every day talking about these issues, raising global awareness about Chinese human rights abuses and bringing some pressure to bear on Beijing to at least moderate those abuses in some ways.

ELLIOTT: Now, China is, quote, "quite peeved" in the words of our Beijing correspondent Emily Feng. Is this bad for China? What could it possibly do here?

MAZZA: Yeah, it's surprising how upset they are by this move. The news of the diplomatic boycott is - has been censored within China, which suggests that this is rather sensitive, even if it's a symbolic move on the part of the United States. And, you know, for Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader for the Chinese Communist Party, the Olympics provide an opportunity for the party to sort of prove itself, to show itself as this, you know, staying power on the international stage. They give the Chinese Communist Party an opportunity domestically to reinforce its legitimacy to rule. They are a sort of a propaganda spectacle for the party. And the United States withholding its participation in this way sort of puts a dent in those efforts. And the party finds that threatening.

ELLIOTT: Now, some members of Congress are saying they'd like to see even stronger action, like a full athletic boycott. Is that possible? Could Congress force that?

MAZZA: Congress can't force it. So while I sympathize with members of Congress who thinks the diplomatic boycott is a half measure - I agree. I think it's too little, too late - you know, what I think is often unrecognized is that a full athletic boycott of the games is not actually up to the president or the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Olympic Committee is an independent organization. It has a charter granted by Congress, but it makes decisions on its own. And so in order for an athletic boycott to take place, that has to be decided by the USOC.

Now, what happened in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics was that there was so much pressure from Congress and President Carter to go down that route that the U.S. Olympic Committee decided it had, you know, essentially had no choice. The public pressure was significant. It's not clear to me that we would be able to get to that point between now and February if there was an effort to do that.

ELLIOTT: Now, I want to follow up and ask you a little bit about this high-profile incident that involved a Chinese athlete. The tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared last month after accusing a top Chinese government official of sexual assault. Just really briefly, in the few moments that we have left, do you think that situation has been resolved?

MAZZA: There's no reason to think it has been resolved. There's every reason to believe that her freedom and her voice are still not her own.

ELLIOTT: OK. That's Mike Mazza with the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you so much.

MAZZA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.