In Brief

The Debate Over Boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics

Several countries are considering boycotting the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. What could a boycott accomplish, and how might China respond?

Months ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, governments are weighing whether to boycott the games. Dozens of rights groups are advocating a full boycott over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and other regions, while some experts and policymakers have proposed alternatives. 

Why boycott the Beijing Olympics?

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China is facing intense criticism for its human rights record. Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, allegations that China denies. Rights groups have also called attention to Beijing’s repression in Tibet and its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong

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A coalition of nearly two hundred rights groups argues that participating in the Beijing Olympics would be turning a blind eye to these abuses and could be seen as “an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes and oversees the games, has sought to avoid the controversy, reaffirming that it maintains a “neutral” position on political issues.

People wear protective masks as they walk in front of logos for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The Beijing Winter Olympics are set to begin in February 2022, less than a year after the postponed Tokyo Olympics are held. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

What motivated past boycotts?

Full boycotts—when governments refuse to send athletes, officials, and spectators to the host nation—have happened a handful of times for a variety of reasons

Notable examples include the 1976 games, when more than two dozen African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics after the IOC refused to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team had ignored an international sporting embargo to tour apartheid South Africa. Four years later, the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union retaliated in 1984, boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics. The last full boycott was in 1988, when North Korea and its allies skipped the Seoul Olympics.

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Do boycotts work?

Experts say it is difficult to measure a boycott’s success. “Boycotts have impacts in a variety of ways that are almost always indirect, almost always over a relatively extended period of time, and sometimes counterproductive,” says David Black, a professor at Dalhousie University who studies sports and international diplomacy. 

For example, Black says, the Soviet Union didn’t leave Afghanistan because of the 1980 boycott, but the boycott eroded the prestige it hoped to gain from the games and signaled growing disapproval of Moscow’s actions.

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In the case of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, many experts say that a boycott likely won’t work and could make it even harder to gain concessions from China. Some say that concerned governments and media outlets could instead use the 2022 games to draw attention to China’s abuses.

What are alternatives to a full boycott?

Countries including the United States have yet to decide on a boycott. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in June that Washington was working with partners to “establish a common approach.” 

That said, there are several alternatives to a full boycott: 

Diplomatic boycott. In this scenario, world leaders and other officials refuse to attend, but athletes still compete. Several members of the U.S. Congress support this approach

Relocation. Some lawmakers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and several European Union countries have called for the 2022 Olympics to be moved to another country if China does not stop persecuting Uyghurs. Experts say the IOC is unlikely to consider a relocation, which would probably require a postponement at this late date.

Athlete protests. Athletes can themselves boycott the games or use the media spotlight to make political statements. Although this is prohibited by the IOC, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee has said it will not sanction American athletes for protests. Still, some experts warn that athletes who do so could face repercussions. 

Actions by sponsors. Activists are also pressuring corporate sponsors, such as Airbnb and Coca-Cola, to withdraw their support, though none have done so yet. When the Financial Times asked the thirteen companies that have major sponsorship contracts with the IOC about their plans, eleven refused to comment

Would China retaliate?

China’s foreign ministry has warned of a “robust response” to any boycotts, and experts point out that Beijing has many ways it could retaliate.

The Chinese government could suspend bilateral exchanges and participation in global talks, such as those on climate change; disrupt trade; and sanction foreign officials. Indeed, there are countless examples in recent years of Beijing retaliating against foreign actions it disapproved of. 

China could also leverage its vast consumer market of 1.4 billion people to damage companies that withdraw support for the games. For example, earlier this year, brands including H&M and Nike faced boycotts by some of the Chinese public after the companies said they would stop using cotton from Xinjiang. “If Beijing perceives that it has lost face, it could react pretty strongly,” says CFR’s Yanzhong Huang.

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