BEIJING: People walk past a statue with the Olympic Rings titled 'Dating With the Winter Olympics' by Huang Jian, near the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee in Shougang Park, one of the sites for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics yesterday. - AFP

BEIJING: China warned yesterday the United States would "pay the price" for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns. The US move - which stopped short of preventing athletes from attending - comes after Washington spent months wrangling over what position to take on the Games, beginning in February next year, over what it has termed China's "genocide" of the Uyghur minority.

The move drew fiery opposition from Beijing, which threatened unspecified countermeasures, warning the US would "pay the price for its wrongdoing". "Stay tuned," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily press briefing. "The US attempt to interfere with the Beijing Winter Olympics out of ideological prejudice, based on lies and rumors, will only expose (its) sinister intentions," Zhao said.

"The Winter Olympics are not a stage for political shows and political manipulation," he added, accusing the US of "actions that interfere in and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics." But Washington's move was broadly welcomed by rights groups and politicians in the US, where President Joe Biden has been under pressure to speak out against Chinese rights abuses. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration would send no diplomatic or official representation to the Games given China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses."

Sending official representation would signal that the Games were "business as usual," Psaki said. "And we simply can't do that." "The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home," she added. The International Olympic Committee called it a "purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects."

The announcement "also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this," an IOC spokesperson said. Russia - whose predecessor state the USSR was subject to a full boycott of the Olympics by the United States in 1980 following its invasion of Afghanistan - slammed the decision. "Our position is that the Olympic Games should be free of politics," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, but said it was positive that participants were not impacted by the decision.

Diplomatic high-wire act

US-China relations hit a low point under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, with a massive trade war and incendiary debate over how the Covid-19 virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Biden has sought to re-engage with Beijing while at the same time focused on strengthening traditional US alliances to counter China's growing economic clout and military presence across the Indo-Pacific region.

His administration has left Trump-era trade tariffs on China in place and continues to order naval patrols through sensitive international sea lanes that Beijing is accused of trying to bring under its control. But with Biden also emphasizing the need for dialogue, critics on the right say he is being too soft, making the looming Olympic Games a political flashpoint. Members of Team USA, their coaches, trainers and other staff will still receive consular and diplomatic security assistance, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

'Powerful rebuke'

Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor. Bob Menendez, chair of the powerful US Senate foreign relations committee, welcomed the diplomatic boycott as "a powerful rebuke" of the "genocide in Xinjiang."

Human Rights Watch called the Biden administration's decision "crucial" but urged more accountability "for those responsible for these crimes and justice for the survivors." The Beijing Olympics have also been overshadowed by sexual assault accusations made by former tennis star Peng Shuai against a retired top Communist Party politician. The three-time Olympian was not heard from for nearly three weeks before re-emerging, after her claims were rapidly censored.

Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held from February 4 to 20 in a "closed loop" bubble because of COVID-19 restrictions. On the streets of Beijing, residents told AFP that they didn't agree with the US move. "Sports is sports. How is it connected to politics? Besides, should political standards be set by the US? Does whatever standard you say become the de facto standard?" said a 72-year-old retired teacher, who gave her surname as Wang. - AFP