Joe Biden will not send a US government delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics, initiating a diplomatic boycott in protest against China’s persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the administration would boycott the Games, which start in February, because of the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. But she said the US Olympic team had the “full support” of the president and his administration.
On Tuesday China’s foreign ministry denounced the decision as “a serious violation of the principle of political neutrality in sport established by the Olympic Charter”, and reiterated its threat to take unspecified countermeasures against the US.
“The crimes committed against Native Americans in the history of the US are the real genocide,” a foreign ministry spokesman added. “The US will pay a price for its wrong practices. Stay tuned for follow-up.”
Washington has taken a strong stance on Beijing’s policies in the western Xinjiang region, where more than 1m Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in detention camps and used as forced labour.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state, followed the Trump administration by describing the repression of the Uyghurs as “genocide”. Biden also raised the issue of Xinjiang and human rights during a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping last month.
Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, called on other countries to join the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott.
“We need to speak with one voice and make clear that silence is not an option when any country, no matter how powerful, grossly undermines universal human rights,” Meeks said.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Biden administration’s announced diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a crucial step toward challenging the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities.”
In recent months, the White House has tried to increase engagement with Beijing, resulting in November in the first meeting between the countries’ respective presidents. On the video call, Biden told Xi that the powers needed to create “guardrails” to ensure that competition “does not veer into conflict”.
Biden has sought to ease tension over issues such as Taiwan, where the Chinese military has been making bigger and more frequent incursions into the country’s “air defence identification zone”. The leaders also agreed to hold nuclear “stability talks”.
But the US president has stressed that he would not stop criticising China over in Xinjiang. Beijing has denied that it is persecuting Uyghurs and said the detention centres were education camps.
The White House has also called on China to explain what has happened to Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who accused a top Communist party official of sexual assault.
Peng disappeared from public view after making the allegations before surfacing weeks later in a few videos, including one showing her meeting Chinese tennis players. Critics said the fact that she has not spoken out herself suggested that the appearances were staged by the Chinese government, which has censored comments about her on social media.
The International Olympic Committee has held two video calls with Peng and asserted that she was fine, drawing accusations of helping the Chinese government silence Peng by participating in calls to which she may have been coerced.
The IOC spokesman said: “The presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects. At the same time, this announcement also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing and Sara Germano in New York
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @Dimi