China warned that the United States would “pay the price” for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights issues.
The US move — which stopped preventing athletes from attending — comes after Washington argued for months over which stance to take at the Games, starting next February, over what could be China’s “genocide” of the Uyghur minority has mentioned.
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The move drew fervent opposition from Beijing, who threatened unspecified countermeasures and warned the US would “pay the price for its misdeeds”.
“Stay tuned,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily news conference.
“The US attempt to meddle in the Beijing Winter Olympics out of ideological bias, based on lies and rumors, will only expose (its) sinister intentions.
“The Winter Olympics are not a stage for political shows and political manipulation,” Zhao added, accusing the US of “actions that disrupt and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics”.
But Washington’s move was widely welcomed by human rights groups and politicians in the US, where President Joe Biden was pressured to speak out against Chinese human rights abuses.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the government will not send diplomatic or official representation to the Games given China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses”.
Sending official representation would indicate the Games were “business as usual,” Psaki said. “And we just can’t.”
“The athletes of Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent if we encourage them from home,” she added.
The International Olympic Committee called it a “purely political decision for any government that fully respects the IOC in its political neutrality.”
The announcement also “makes it clear that the Olympics and the participation of the athletes are outside of politics and we welcome this,” said an IOC spokesperson.
Russia — whose predecessor the USSR was the subject of a total boycott of the Olympics by the United States in 1980 after the invasion of Afghanistan — denounced the decision.
“Our position is that the Olympics should be free of politics,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, but said it was positive that the participants were not affected by the decision.
US-China relations hit rock bottom under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, amid a massive trade war and inflammatory debate over how the Covid-19 virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Biden has sought to reconnect with Beijing while focusing on strengthening traditional US alliances to counter China’s growing economic influence and military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
His administration has maintained trade tariffs on Trump-era China and continues to order naval patrols over sensitive international shipping routes that Beijing is accused of trying to control.
But while Biden also emphasizes the need for dialogue, critics on the right say he is too soft, turning the looming Olympics into a political flashpoint.
Team USA members, their coaches, trainers and other personnel will continue to receive consular and diplomatic security assistance, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Campaigners say at least a million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim, minorities are locked up in camps in Xinjiang province, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labour.
Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate’s powerful foreign relations committee, welcomed the diplomatic boycott as “a forceful rebuke” of the “genocide in Xinjiang”.
Human Rights Watch called the Biden administration’s decision “crucial” but urged greater responsibility “for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors.”
The Beijing Olympics was also overshadowed by allegations of sexual assault by former tennis star Peng Shuai against a retired top Communist Party politician.
The three-time Olympian was not heard from for nearly three weeks before resurfacing after her claims were quickly censored.
Just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held from February 4-20 in a “closed loop” bubble due to Covid-19 restrictions.