There was plenty of time to actually do something about human rights abuses, rather than just make a vague “tsk-tsk” noise in Beijing’s direction now.
Even under the best of circumstances, the international Olympic Games are, to put it mildly, a total shitshow. Graft, fraud, shameless exploitation ... the Olympics has it all in abundance, to the point where the participating athletes’ accomplishments risk being overshadowed by the overarching atmosphere of geopolitical posturing and the sliding scale of overt avarice on the part of host nation.
With that in mind, the U.S.’s decision to enact a “diplomatic boycott” against the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing manages to ring all the more hollow in the face of the Olympics’s status quo of overwhelming politicization. Speaking with reporters Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced the Biden administration’s decision not to send any U.S. government officials to the games, explaining that it would send a “clear message” to China in regards to that nation’s widely documented human rights abuses, particularly the ongoing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.
“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of [China]’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” Psaki said.
To which I say: What?
Let’s be extremely clear here. America isn’t actually boycotting the upcoming Games. Oh no no, they’ll still be sending the full contingent of skiers, skaters, bobsledders, snowboarders, and other cold weather athletes. In fact, as Psaki stressed Monday, the actual Olympic participants have the “full support” of the U.S. government. How nice for them. Instead, it’ll just be the delegates and government representatives (First Lady Jill Biden sat in on the Tokyo Games this summer) who will miss out on all the fun — which is to say, the boycott will extend only as far as to the people who don’t actually do anything at the Olympics.
It gets dumber.
“Without being invited, American politicians keep hyping the so-called diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is purely wishful thinking and grandstanding,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in response to the White House’s announcement. “If the U.S. side is bent on going its own way, China will take firm countermeasures.”
“Without being invited” eh? Clearly this is posturing on China’s part, but now we’re at the point where the U.S. and China are doing the international version of “you can’t fire me, I quit!” over — again — something that has no actual, practical impact to begin with.
And we’re not done, because, in case you forgot, we’re still in the middle of a catastrophic global pandemic. One which, it just so happens, means China had already closed the Olympic Games to foreign spectators to begin with. So not only are U.S. diplomats not going to be going to Beijing, but even if they had gone, they weren’t exactly going to be rallying crowds of expat Americans in the stands.
So, uh, what the hell is going on here? Despite Psaki’s claim that the diplomatic boycott wasn’t “the end of the concerns we will raise about human rights abuses” in China, it’s hard to see what the actual point here is, beyond an empty gesture more geared toward projecting strength on the domestic front than actually making a difference for the lives of those being oppressed by the Chinese government. It’s not like the atrocities that allegedly prompted the boycott were exactly a secret before this announcement was made, which means the U.S. has had plenty of time to actually, y’know, do something about this beyond making vague “tsk-tsk” noises in the general direction of Beijing.
Still, in the grand scheme of Olympic things, this is largely on par with the sort of meaningless pantomimes nations do before each set of Games. Raise a stink about something serious, without actually doing anything that would jeopardize the event itself. (It’s been nearly half a century since the U.S. actually skipped the Games, by the way). In that sense, this diplomatic boycott is just a new flavor of the same old geopolitical bullshit. And when it comes to geopolitical bullshit, the U.S. almost always takes the gold.