President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met via video conference earlier this week for a three-and-a-half-hour discussion. Each leader's opening statements struck a conciliatory tone, pledging to work together. Yet, given the recent aggressive actions of the Chinese government and the persistent human rights abuses within its borders, the conciliatory tone is exactly the problem.
During Monday's overly polite video conference, Xi went as far as to call Biden "my old friend," a label the White House has since pushed back on. The rest of the meeting, Xi and Biden discussed Taiwan, China's unfair trade and economic practices, and how to mitigate the risk of conflict in the future.
According to the readout of the meeting provided by the White House, Biden raised human rights concerns, specifically highlighting the Chinese government's abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. This is a good move by the president. Chinese leaders need to understand that their human rights conditions will affect how other countries treat them. The free world will always be less interested in partnering with bad actors. If a government can't treat its own people with dignity, then it shouldn't be trusted to honor its international commitments or the agreements it makes.
The United States should ensure that the consequence for the Chinese government's bad behavior are put on full display at the 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Beijing less than three months from now. Reports indicate that the Biden administration is weighing its options on how to approach the Olympics in light of China's human rights abuses. The reality is that the Olympics is an international honor for the host nation--one that the Chinese government does not currently deserve.
Unfortunately, it's too late for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to change the location of the games. But that doesn't mean President Biden and other top-level officials have to show up and hob-knob, acting like the situation in China is fine. Everything isn't fine, especially in the northwest region of Xinjiang, where the U.S. government has officially determined that there is an ongoing genocide taking place against Uyghur Muslims. Throughout China, Christian house church pastors are imprisoned and intimidated. Christians are surveilled when they attend church, cannot buy Bibles online, and minors are prevented from attending churches.
The Biden administration is said to be considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. This means no U.S. officials would attend the games, but American athletes could still participate. A diplomatic boycott is a decent compromise that does not punish American athletes and one that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended.
The Biden administration needs to be tough on China. Climate activists and officials who want to cooperate with China on climate change efforts are increasingly resistant to holding China accountable for its human rights abuses. But averting our eyes from these abuses in order to keep the diplomatic peace would be a mistake. Chinese leaders prove every day that soft rhetoric will not appease them. China needs to be held accountable when it comes to trade, military aggression, bullying at the United Nations, and blatant human rights abuses. At the end of the day, polite virtual meetings won't accomplish anything meaningful.