President Joe Biden on Thursday said that his administration is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
When a reporter asked Biden during an Oval Office meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether he’d support such a diplomatic boycott, Biden replied, “Something we’re considering.”
Members of Congress who have been pressing the issue legislatively say they understand the administration supports the idea, which would keep U.S. government officials, but not American athletes, from attending.
It’s part of an ongoing effort by activists and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to boycott the games over alleged human rights violations by China’s government.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed a diplomatic boycott in May and Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., are working together on an amendment to a massive national defense bill that would institute the boycott.
“That is my understanding,” Kaine said when asked if his proposal had the administration’s backing. “We’ve been urging it on the White House and they might actually take some steps before we even pass it.”
It’s not yet clear if the proposed amendment will get a vote on the floor. Similar language is included in a Senate-passed bill aimed at shoring up U.S. innovation and increasing competitiveness with China, but that bill is currently being reconciled with the House version and it’s unclear whether all provisions will remain.
Reporters on Thursday pressed White House press secretary Jen Psaki on whether Biden would end up supporting a diplomatic boycott, but she wouldn’t make a firm commitment on where he stands, although she did confirm the administration has been in conversations with lawmakers.
“Of course, we’re in regular touch at a range of levels with members of Congress about a range of issues including our relationship with China and including an issue like this, that there’s been a lot of reporting and interest in,” Psaki said. “But beyond that, I don’t have an update given he just answered the question himself.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has backed his predecessor’s determination that the Chinese government is carrying out a genocide of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority based for centuries in what is now China’s western province of Xinjiang.
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The State Department has restricted exports from the region and sanctioned Chinese officials it has said are leading the campaign of repression, forced sterilization, displacement, and mass internment. Over one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are said to be in “re-education camps,” according to the U.S. government — facilities that at first China denied existed and has now cast as part of a broader counter-terrorism campaign in the region.
Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, but the Olympics were not discussed, according to a White House readout of the call.
While a a diplomatic boycott would mean that Biden and other U.S. officials would not attend the games — but athletes would — some lawmakers want to go further.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called for a total boycott Thursday, citing human rights issues and concerns about surveillance of athletes and their safety. Such a total boycott would sideline over 200 athletes set to compete in February. Cotton also wants corporate sponsorships for the games to be pulled.
Cotton said he supports a diplomatic boycott but called it “the least, the absolute bare minimum that any civilized nation would do.”
“It is probably going to be too little, too late,” Cotton said. “And now it’s not enough, either.”
Such a boycott is not unprecedented. President Jimmy Carter ordered a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The Beijing Olympics are set to open on Feb. 4, 2022.
Psaki said she’ll leave it to Biden to formalize the U.S. official stance.
“I certainly understand the interest,” she said. “But I want to leave the president the space to make decisions.”