The Biden administration announced it will hold a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, meaning U.S. athletes will still attend and compete, but the U.S. government won’t send any officials. The Chinese government vowed to retaliate.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration made the decision due to China’s ongoing human rights violations. Activists and human rights organizations have been calling to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics since 2015. The Chinese government’s recent forced “disappearance” and “reappearance” of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has only energized the boycotting Beijing Winter Olympics movement. The Biden administration’s announcement is a welcome step.
But the announcement took place at the same time the administration faced criticism of its lobbying Congress to weaken a bill regarding the forced labor of Uyghurs. Those two contradictory actions raise questions about whether the administration is committed to standing up to China and upholding universal values such as human rights.
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, aiming to “ensure that goods tainted with the forced labor of Uyghurs, and others, in the Xinjiang” do not enter the U.S. market. In July, the U.S. Senate passed its version of a similar bill co-sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. But House Democrats stalled the bill until it passed Wednesday 428-1, as the Biden administration asked Democrats to slow and water down the bill.
Resistance from Biden Administration
Two key players led the Biden administration’s lobbying efforts. One is the administration’s climate czar John Kerry, who reportedly lobbied against the bill out of the fear it would dissuade Beijing’s cooperation on climate change. Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., criticized Kerry on social media.
Another key player is Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. According to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, “Sherman’s specific criticism relates to a part of the bill that would require a presumption that all products coming from Xinjiang are tainted by forced labor unless the importer can prove otherwise.” Big corporations such as Apple have been lobbying against the same provision since last year. It is not a coincidence that the Biden administration and big corporations’ interests are aligned.
Frustrated by House Democrats’ inaction, Rubio reintroduced the Uyghur forced labor bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate Democrats used a procedural excuse to block the vote on Rubio’s amendment. Rubio tweeted, “The Biden Administration is actively working to stop the passage of an anti-slavery bill targeting # China’s genocide. That is why they don’t want my amendment on this to get on the defense bill.”
Why did the Biden administration act as if the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) atrocities against Uyghur Muslims is reason to hold a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, but not to support a bill that will prevent goods tainted with forced Uyghur laborers’ blood, sweat, and tears from entering the U.S. market?
Since day one, the Biden administration’s China policy has been full of contradictions like these. On the one hand, it continued some of former President Donald Trump’s tough approaches on China, including expanding the Trump-era blacklist of Chinese companies that Americans companies should not invest in.
The Biden administration also deepened the U.S. partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom by establishing the AUKUS. This alliance will begin with helping Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines as a counterweight to China’s naval expansion in the Asia Pacific.
On the other hand, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced plans to bring American executives to China and further deepen Sino-U.S. economic ties as if everything is fine. The Biden administration also repeatedly capitulated to the CCP’s hostage diplomacy.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) set free China telecom giant Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou, although Meng admitted she was guilty of some of DOJ’s charges. In return, China released two Canadian hostages it had detained since 2018.
Days before president Biden and Chinese leader Xi Xinping’s virtual summit, the Biden administration sent back to China seven Chinese nationals who were found guilty and served prison terms in the United States. In return, China permitted one U.S. citizen it illegally detained and never formally charged to return to the United States.
During Biden and Xi’s highly anticipated virtual summit, Biden didn’t even bring up important topics such as how the CCP has obstructed an international investigation of the origins of Covid-19.
The Biden administration’s messages on Taiwan are especially confusing. During a CNN town hall, President Biden said that the United States was committed to defending Taiwan if it came under attack from China. The next day the White House clarified that the president wasn’t announcing any policy on Taiwan. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, warned: “Words are important, and we can’t be careless in how we talk about an issue that is so vital to U.S. interests and the security of the Indo-Pacific.”
Ramifications of Incoherent Policy
It seems that after being on the job for almost a year, the Biden administration still doesn’t have a coherent China policy. The mixed signals the administration sent are problematic for three reasons.
First, they do not inspire confidence in the American people that the administration has the competency to protect them and American interests. Consequently, people may not want to lend the administration the popular support it needs to make difficult choices when confronting China.
Second, when the United States needs its allies to establish a united front to stand up to China and uphold universal values, few will follow the U.S. lead because of a lack of confidence that the Biden administration has the political will to see it through.
Third, the CCP may take the Biden administration’s mixed signals as a sign of weakness and be encouraged to take risky actions, such as invading Taiwan sooner rather than later. China’s invasion of Taiwan will not only threaten regional peace but also jeopardize the survival of the liberal democratic world order.
The great power struggle between the United States and China is the most consequential event in our lifetime. Ambiguity in policies and mixed signals could lead to disastrous consequences. The Biden administration needs to show clarity, commitment, and coherence in its China policy.