The Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics is already showing signs of being a limited success.
The effort, aimed at allowing athletes to compete while protesting China’s human rights abuses, has garnered the support of lawmakers in both parties, human rights groups and key U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
But support is far from universal.
France is sending diplomats to Beijing, saying it opposes using sports competitions to highlight concerns over human rights — such as Beijing’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, suppression of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and cultural repression in Tibet.
Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill MORE (D-Ore.) criticized France’s refusal to join the boycott, while speaking on the Senate floor on Dec. 15.
“It is not too late to call out the serious, egregious conduct occurring in China,” the senator said. “France, join us, as you have over time, in standing for human rights.”
France is not alone.
South Korea is not participating in the diplomatic boycott of the Games, citing its coordination with China over North Korea in a sharp break with the U.S.
The European Union has yet to make a final decision on how it will approach the Games, with member nations on opposite sides of the debate.
Germany’s foreign minister has reportedly called for a common response from European nations on the Olympics and Italy, which is expected to host the 2026 Winter Olympics, is not planning to join the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott, a government source told Reuters in early December.
Norway, which is viewed as one of the best performers in the Winter Olympics, is planning to send both its diplomats and athletes to the Beijing Games, Henrik Thune, the state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Hill, although changing COVID-19 precautions are being watched closely.
"Assuming that travel restrictions and other requirements related to the pandemic in February allow it, members of the Norwegian Government are planning to be present during both the Olympics and the Paralympic Games in Beijing," Thune wrote in an email.
"The Norwegian government does not generally consider boycotts to be an effective means of promoting peaceful development, human rights and mutual understanding between countries," he said.
Lithuania, a member of the E.U., is not sending diplomats to criticize China for instituting a campaign of economic coercion over Vilnius’s decision to upgrade relations with Taiwan.
Diplomats from Japan will also reportedly skip the Games, while New Zealand said it was keeping its diplomats at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A senior administration official told The Hill that the Biden administration is “not coordinating a global campaign with other partners,” but that the U.S. “consulted with allies and partners and informed them of our decision beforehand.”
“We always fully expected each to make their own decision, as is their prerogative,” the official said.
Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan, said the lack of unity among U.S. partners can work to China’s benefit.
“I think that the problem with these types of boycotts is that it tends to clarify to Beijing where the dividers are among U.S. allies or other Western democracies,” she said. “It kind of highlights to China where there is disagreement and who isn’t willing to stand behind the United States when it takes these actions.”
That concern is being echoed by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“I am deeply concerned that our allies seem less determined than we are to stop China from using [the Olympics] as a huge propaganda win,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The Hill. “And in fact, China’s using it in all kinds of subtle ways with influencers and other means to spread disinformation, I am hopeful that perhaps our allies will be stronger.”
Wangpo Tethong, executive director of International Campaign for Tibet in Europe, said he has met with the International Olympic Committee and National Olympic Committee of several European countries pushing for the publication of guidelines for athletes to avoid being implicated in Chinese media events that seek to present oppressed minority communities as celebrated.
“Often the people are asked to make some images, or be prepared to join some cultural activities during the Olympics, it can be something very subtle or simple, some image with a woman or man in traditional clothes — and we said, ‘Be careful because all these activities have some political connotations,”’ Wangpo said he advised in meetings.
“It’s really not about just being there and participating, you have to give the athletes clear guidelines, how they can protect themselves from being exploited and both misused for these sorts of activities,” he said.
The senior administration official told The Hill that it expects the People's Republic of China "to ensure the safety and well-being of our athletes," adding that the U.S. will be in close touch with Team USA.
“We intend to provide consular and diplomatic security services to ensure our athletes, coaches, trainers and staff are secure and have access to the American citizen services that we provide to all American citizens overseas,” the official said.
Human rights groups are still calling for a full athletic boycott of the Games, but in the meantime are focusing efforts on talking to athletes and athletic organizations about the experience of communities in China and Chinese-controlled territories that are suffering abuses.
“Times have only worsened for our people and it would be great for athletes to be part of that conversation, too,” Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan-Canadian activist, told The Hill. Lhamo is trying to reach athletes directly to hold conversations about China’s human rights abuses.
She was recently arrested in Greece for protesting the Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Olympia, holding a sign reading “No Genocide Games.”
“On a human-to-human level, it would be lovely to connect [with athletes] and let them know about our stories, and also be able to have that opportunity to hear from them about their concerns and what role athletes play in choosing where these Games are allowed to be hosted and the repercussions of hosting these Games,” she said.