US House speaker says leaders who attend Games would lose moral authority because of China’s treatment of Uyghur minority

US House speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.
US House speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

US House speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for a US diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, criticising China for human rights abuses and saying global leaders who attend would lose their moral authority.

US lawmakers have been increasingly vocal about an Olympic boycott or venue change, and have lashed out at American corporations, arguing their silence about what the State Department has deemed a genocide of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China was abetting the Chinese government.

Pelosi, a Democrat, told a bipartisan congressional hearing on the issue on Tuesday that heads of state around the world should shun the Games, which are to take place in February.

“What I propose – and join those who are proposing – is a diplomatic boycott,” Pelosi said, in which “lead countries of the world withhold their attendance at the Olympics.”

“Let’s not honor the Chinese government by having heads of state go to China,” she added.

“For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing – while you’re sitting there in your seat – really begs the question, what moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world?” she said.

An independent United Nations panel said in 2018 it had received credible reports that at least 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims had been held in camps in China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing describes them as vocational training centers to stamp out extremism, and strongly rejects accusations of abuse and genocide.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu,said that US attempts to interfere in China’s domestic affairs over the Olympics were doomed to fail.

“I wonder what makes some US politicians think they actually have the so-called ‘moral authority’? On human rights issues, they are in no position, either historically or currently, to make wanton groundless criticism against China,” Liu said.

Republican congressman Chris Smith, who led the hearing, said corporate sponsors should be called to testify before Congress and be “held to account … Big business wants to make lots of money, and it doesn’t seem to matter what cruelty – even genocide – that the host nation commits,” Smith said.

Demands from across the world for some form of boycott of the Beijing Games are growing. British MPs have urged athletes to boycott the event and human rights groupshave also called for a boycott.

Joe Biden’s administration has said it hopes to develop a joint approach with allies to participation in Beijing’s Olympics.

Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive officer of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said in a written statement the committee was concerned about the “oppression of the Uyghur population,” but barring US athletes was “certainly not the answer”.

“Past Olympic boycotts have failed to achieve political ends,” she said.