THE ‘RESOLUTE COUNTERMEASURES’ that Bejing promised to take against the now-announced diplomatic boycott of the Bejing Winter Olympic games by the United States may be just to ignore it.
On Monday, the Biden administration announced that US diplomats would not attend the Games, to be held in February, because of its concerns about China’s human rights record.
US athletes will be free to participate.
Beijing has already banned foreign spectators on public health grounds. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 will create complications in managing the Games and provide convenient cover for any further restrictions if determined politically necessary.
There will be little blowback in the United States for the administration’s decision. Supporting Beijing by attending the Games would be unpopular. If anything, criticism in the United States has been of the administration not imposing a complete boycott.
Similarly, any tit for tat snubs by China will do the administration no harm domestically. It is anyway unlikely that Beijing would ban athletes from boycotting countries.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, responding to a question about the potential for a US diplomatic boycott, trotted out the standard line about not politicising sport, adding that ‘no one cared‘ if US politicians, who were not being invited anyway, came or not. (Technically, invitations to attend the games come from the International Olympic Committee, not the host nation, but we will let that pass.)
The question is whether other Western governments will follow Washington’s lead and downgrade or scrap their official attendance. The United Kingdom and Australia would be the most likely candidates.
A more acid test of US sentiment will be if the extent to which the Games are watched in the United States and whether US multinationals scale back their commercial support for the games, either directly on via advertising and sponsorship of US coverage.
A straw in the wind: in its online news report of the diplomatic boycott, NBC, the US broadcaster with the rights to the Games, embedded a link on how to ‘Watch all the action from the Beijing Olympics live on NBC‘.
Update: Australia says it will join the diplomatic boycott. New Zealand says it will not be sending an official delegation for Covid-19 reasons. France says Europe will respond at an EU level, adding that the EU already sanctions China over Xinjiang. The United Kingdom is sitting on the fence.
Update to the update: The United Kingdom and Canada have now joined the diplomatic boycott.