Joe Biden has decided not to send a US government delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics, in a diplomatic boycott designed to send a strong message to China about the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the administration would not send any officials to the games, which start in February, because of the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. But she said the US Olympic team had the “full support” of the president and his administration.
The US has taken a strong stance on the situation in Xinjiang where more than 1m Uyghurs and other minorities have been held in detention camps and used as forced labour.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state, earlier this year followed in the steps of the Trump administration by describing the repression of the Uyghurs as “genocide”. Biden also raised the issue of Xinjiang and human rights during a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping last month.
“The Biden administration’s announced diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a crucial step toward challenging the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, called on other countries to join the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott.
“We need to speak with one voice and make clear that silence is not an option when any country, no matter how powerful, grossly undermines universal human rights”, Meeks said.
“We greatly appreciate the unwavering support of the president and his administration and we know they will be cheering us on from home this winter,” said Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
In recent months, the White House has tried to engage more with Beijing, resulting in November in the first meeting between Biden and Xi. In the video call, Biden told Xi that they needed to create “guardrails” to ensure that competition between the powers “does not veer into conflict”.
Biden wants to find ways to reduce tension over issues such as Taiwan where the Chinese military has been making bigger and more frequent incursions into the country’s “air defence identification zone”. The leaders also agreed to hold exploratory talks about tackling nuclear issues.
But the US president has stressed that he will not stop criticising China over the situation in Xinjiang. Beijing has denied that it is persecuting Uyghurs and says the detention centres in Xinjiang are education camps.
The White House has also called on Beijing to explain what has happened to Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who accused a top Communist party official of sexual assault.
Peng disappeared from public view after making the allegations, and surfaced weeks later in a few videos, including one showing her meeting Chinese tennis players. Critics say the fact that she has not spoken out herself suggests that the appearances were staged by the Chinese government, which has censored comments about her on social media.
Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state and top diplomat for China issues, last month said she was “deeply concerned” and called on Beijing “to provide independent, verifiable proof of her whereabouts”.
The International Olympic Committee has held two video calls with Peng and asserted that she is fine. Critics have accused the association of helping the Chinese government silence Peng, and said the group does not know if she has been coerced into holding the calls.
The IOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Sara Germano
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter