Mitt Romney warns against US boycott of Beijing Olympics, suggests ‘economic and diplomatic boycott’ instead

Utah Senator Mitt Romney has spoken out against calls to boycott next year’s winter Olympics in Beijing, writing that for the US to back out would be “unfair” to American athletes and would do nothing to change the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a New York Times op-ed, Mr Romney acknowledges some of the heinous abuses the Chinese government is currently engaged in, among them the effective end of democratic rule in Hong Kong, the genocidal treatment of Uighur Muslims, and the use of authoritarian techniques to spy on and punish civilians.

However, he says, the US would do a brutal disservice to its athletes were it to pull them out of the Olympics – and that the sacrifice would be “counterproductive”, robbing the US of “the global symbolism of our young American heroes standing atop the medals podium, hand to their hearts, as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays on Chinese soil”.

The Beijing games, which will be held in February next year, have become increasingly controversial as details have emerged of the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang province.

The repression of the Uighur Muslim minority in the region has seen the detention of hundreds of thousands of people in specially constructed camps, where some are subjected to forced re-education, subjected to forced labour, and in some cases tortured, executed or sterilised to bring the Uighur birth rate down.

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The situation in Hong Kong, meanwhile, has put pressure on democratic countries – especially the US and the UK, with its post-colonial connection to the region – to recalibrate their China policies and make a decision on their approach to the games.

Mr Romney’s solution to avoid dashing US athletes’ dreams while also taking a hard line on Beijing is what he describes as “an economic and diplomatic boycott”, with American spectators staying at home.

On the diplomatic front, he writes, the US should not send a traditional high-level delegation; instead, “the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us”. And beyond that, TV network NBC should “refrain from showing any jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies and instead broadcast documented reports of China’s abuses”.

A former one-term governor of Massachusetts, Mr Romney grounded both his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns on his executive experience steering the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, running ads that claimed he “saved” the games from a catastrophic budget crisis after leaving his extremely lucrative job at Bain Capital to do so.

The games were not just beset by financial problems but also held in the shadow of 9/11, with the worry that they could prove the next major target of anti-American terrorism.

That they went ahead without any major security issues while also running within budget helped Mr Romney emerge with a greatly enhanced image, helping springboard him to the Massachusetts governor’s mansion less than two years later – even though he said during the run-up to the games that he was not using them for political leverage.

In early 2014, Mr Romney said that he would feel comfortable attending that year’s winter games in the Russian resort of Sochi despite serious security threats from rebel groups in the Caucasus.