Don't Boycott Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics | Opinion

The People's Republic of China (PRC) is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Recently, there have been calls by human rights groups, politicians and others for the United States and like-minded nations to boycott the spectacle due to Beijing's muscle-flexing around its periphery and widely acknowledged domestic human and political rights problems—Tibet and Hong Kong among them. Moreover, the Biden administration has labeled developments in western China, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, "genocide." Boycott calls have ignited debate over the pros and cons of such action in both the United States and the international community.

Much the same thing occurred in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. As occurred in 2008, I expect that in the final analysis, most major states will participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics after some marginally effective negotiations with the PRC. One key difference between now and 2008 is that today's China feels much stronger diplomatically and economically than it did more than a decade ago.

But predictions aside: What should we think of proposals that the U.S. government boycott the Games?

Proposals advocating a U.S. government boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in the PRC arise from Beijing's sometimes-threatening rhetoric and action toward smaller neighbors, as well as its domestic violation of citizens' rights. Predictably, these policies and actions spark a desire in many quarters to punish bad behavior and reinforce global norms. For American national leaders, however, moral outrage and righteousness do not relieve them of the obligations to define feasible goals and assume responsibility for policy consequences. Good intentions cannot make up for bad policy outcomes.

What's more, in February 4 remarks, President Joe Biden defined China as "our most serious competitor." It would be ironic for one of the new administration's first acts to be unilaterally walking off one of the world's largest fields of competition against that "most serious competitor."

With all this in mind, those promoting a boycott should keep several considerations in mind.

First, consider that going it alone in foreign and security policy affairs increases American burdens and reduces U.S. effectiveness. Instructive in this regard is President Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games due to the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan. Even in that comparatively globally outraged context, Britain, France, Greece and Australia did not join the boycott, though 65 other nations did. Turning to China and the 2022 Winter Olympics, given the modern realities of Chinese global economic integration, today we can expect much more resistance to the boycott idea. Washington could well find itself the majorette for a marching band that is going in an entirely different direction. Non-support by like-minded nations would perversely be portrayed by Beijing as indifference to what it refers to as "so-called universal values"—or as an outright endorsement of the PRC's foreign and domestic policies.

Second, there are other effective ways in which to reinforce global norms. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, global pressure energized negotiations between the International Olympic Committee and the Chinese government to promote openness. There were long negotiations over media access, the rights of protesters and access to the Games themselves. Not many of these agreements and understandings proved particularly effective, but the act of energetically pushing for progress was better than just walking off the field entirely. Moreover, Beijing would be hard-pressed to defend the idea that it could not in 2022 observe standards to which it had previously assented in 2008. For their parts, private-sector organizations and multinational firms may find creative ways to make their concerns known in ways both big and small.

Chinese flag flies in front of the
Chinese flag flies in front of the IOC's headquarters FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Third, consider the almost certain response to a boycott by the Chinese populace. PRC citizens will not view a boycott of the Olympics as a gesture of solidarity with a beleaguered population. Instead, they will consider it to be an attack on the Chinese people and their national and civilizational dignity, as well as an attempt to humiliate, not negotiate. Aroused nationalism generates counterproductive internal and external behavior. Related, trying to hold any Olympics in the era of COVID-19 is a huge challenge; we don't need to provide Beijing a ready-made excuse for every problem it may encounter in hosting the Games.

A fourth consideration is the analytic framework employed by my Newsweek "Debate of the Week" interlocutor, Gordon G. Chang. Since the 2001 publication of his book The Coming Collapse of China, in which he predicted the PRC's demise within a decade, China has actually performed impressively along many dimensions (even conceding that Beijing has more problems than Chang himself catalogued). Instead of folding like a cheap suit, Beijing weathered the global financial crisis of 2008–2009, has had more economic growth than almost any other major country during COVID-19 and has pushed impressively into the solar system and many other technological domains. Despite the PRC's extensive corruption, declining economic productivity and flawed banking and financial systems, China accounted for about 28 percent of global growth in the 2013–2018 period.

Looking at the PRC's actual performance, at some point you simply have to conclude that the best planning assumption is that the regime is going to be around for a considerable period. Consequently, we must focus our national attention on upping our own performance in order to meet the challenge. Our national performance will be the coin of the realm in the competitive era ahead. If we wish to join with Beijing in controlling global warming, pandemic prevention and control, counter-proliferation, and worldwide economic system management, as President Biden told Chinese President Xi Jinping he wished to do in a February 10 phone call, it is hard to see how poking China in the eye is helpful.

A final consideration, though amorphous, is central. What is one's moral standing to adopt punitive policies toward others? I am grounded in the Ronald Reagan school of thought—indeed, in the biblical school of Mathew 5:14-16—"The Shining City upon a Hill." There is no substitute for moral high ground. Nations, like individuals, seize the moral high ground not by self-satisfied declarations, but by living out a vision. The United States, at the moment riven by its own racial and economic inequalities and concerned about internal political stability, would have much greater global persuasive power if it had its own grave challenges firmly in hand. On the basis of domestic success, we can then seek to influence others.

David M. Lampton, co-author of Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia, is senior research scholar at the Foreign Policy Institute and Hyman professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He also is former president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.