The Biden administration has signaled that, like the Trump administration before it, it will take a tough line on China. Impressively, President Biden invited Taiwan’s representative to attend his inauguration. Then, after Chinese warplanes flew close to Taiwan, the president sent a U.S. warship through the Taiwan Strait. On a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Feb. 10, Biden reiterated America’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and expressed concern about human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the president is in no great rush to unwind his predecessor’s “trade war” with China.
In short, the differences between the Biden administration and the Trump administration on China, senior officials have suggested, are likely to be differences of style, not substance.
One decision the Biden administration will have to make soon relates to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. With the opening ceremony less than a year away, the administration says it has no plans to support boycotting or moving the Games despite China’s grotesque human rights abuses at home and economic and military aggression abroad. “There’s no discussion underway of a change in our plans from the United States at this point in time,” according to White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
President Biden should recognize that the distinctive aspect of the Trump administration’s posture was not toughness but putting the Chinese Communist Party’s character, goals, and tactics at the center of policy. For the CCP, hosting the Olympic Games is part and parcel of a larger agenda: to play a greater role on the world stage and attain deference from the world’s democracies.
The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 took place in the previous era of American “engagement” policy toward China. At the time, many observers believed that hosting the Olympics would change the CCP. This was deluded, given that in the period leading up to the Games, Beijing rounded up dissidents, forcibly evicted more than a million people to construct sports venues, and imposed severe press restrictions. Despite the George W. Bush administration’s pro-engagement stance, his foreign policy team tried to minimize the impact of President Bush’s attendance with an aide suggesting he merely went to the Beijing Games in his capacity as a sports fan.
Not surprisingly, the staging of track-and-field events, swimming, and the marathon did not transform the CCP. Just months after the conclusion of the Games, the Communist government arrested and detained signers of Charter 08, a democracy manifesto which asserted that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind” and that “democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.”
Today, the situation is much worse. The CCP has intensified its domestic repression. General Secretary Xi seeks to “Sinicize” ethnic minorities and religions, leading the new U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to agree with his predecessor Michael Pompeo that Beijing’s policies toward the Uighurs constitute genocide. Hong Kong is nearly unrecognizable as the thriving entrepôt with a respected judicial system it once was.
Abroad, Xi pursues grandiose ambitions to restore China’s imperial stature and reach through economic and military power. Beijing seeks to dominate international organizations and advance anti-democratic norms, using united-front tactics and investment initiatives to coopt and corrupt foreign elites.
Sending American athletes and officials to the Olympic Games in Beijing next year would render incoherent U.S. efforts to contest Beijing’s abuses at home and assertiveness abroad.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration should be prepared for a ferocious reaction to any effort to boycott the Games or relocate them to a more suitable alternative venue or venues. As the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a regime mouthpiece, tweeted last week, “China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call.”
Similar threats have been effective in the past. In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the activist intellectual jailed for his involvement in Charter 08. Beijing reacted hysterically, calling the award “an anti-China farce” and assailing Liu, who had saved lives during the June 4, 1989 massacre of democracy protesters by the People’s Liberation Army, as a tool of “Western masters.” Beijing succeeded in intimidating eighteen foreign capitals from sending diplomats to the awards ceremony in Oslo. The biggest punishment was reserved for Norway, which was shut out of trade and diplomacy with China until it made forced concessions—including on Tibet and the (1989 Nobel laureate) Dalai Lama, on which Norway had previously been staunch.
Beijing’s successful divide-and-conquer tactics applied to the Winter Games would create an even worse debacle. The Biden administration should work urgently with America’s allies to reach a united position against attendance at the Beijing Winter Games.
In the meantime, the status quo position on the Games is untenable. Why not say what should be obvious: The United States could not possibly send athletes and officials to Beijing while Uighurs face rape and forced labor; while political prisoners like Xu Zhiyong in the mainland and Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy newspaper publisher in Hong Kong, remain in custody; while the CCP is engaged in a campaign to subvert Tibetan Buddhism; and while China’s military increases pressure on Taiwan. That is not only a tough policy but one that recognizes that CCP rule, and America’s response to it, have changed since 2008.