Ryan Cochran-Siegle of Team United States skis during the Men's Downhill 1st training session ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 03, 2022 in Yanqing, China.

Ryan Cochran-Siegle of Team United States skis during the Men's Downhill 1st training session ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 03, 2022 in Yanqing, China. Getty Images / Tom Pennington

Can I Watch the Olympics or Does That Make Me a Communist?

New polls show there’s still time to shape how Americans feel about China, while still rooting for Team USA.

Are you still an American if you watch the Beijing Winter Olympics this month? 

According to a growing chorus of China hawks, chickenhawks, opportunistic President Joe Biden-haters, far-right and far-left human rights activists, your patriotism and humanity is questionable if you watch NBC’s coverage of the figure skating, curling, and mogul skiing in Beijing. In Washington, the pressure is mounting to pick a side: for them or against them.

But what if you don’t live in Washington–or even care about Washington–and watch the Olympic games outside of the Beltway? Americans need more and better guidance from their leaders than “with us or against us” loyalty tests of party or country, and soon. 

According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, a growing share of Americans thinks China might matter to them. But not nearly as much as China already matters to those in Washington, whether to the Pentagon’s military leaders and other serious national security voices, newspaper columnists, or opportunistic partisans and unserious propagandists. The games are fraught with political troubles, but they’re also a historic chance for national security and political leaders to influence what many uninformed and uninterested Americans feel, think, and say about China for years to come, while there’s still a chance

China has been creeping up the threat chart in the past few years when Americans are asked what they think of it. Xi Jinping and his authoritarian crackdown on capitalism and human rights, takeover of Hong Kong, genocide and concentration camps means anyone doing business in or with China is under more scrutiny than ever, from NBA owners to Elon Musk’s Tesla store in Xinjiang. When Financial Times asked the International Olympic Committee’s 13 main corporate sponsors this week to comment, none responded. Others said they support Olympic athletes, no matter the location. But those same athletes have been warned by human-rights activists to keep their mouths shut while in China lest they be thrown in a Chinese jail. 

Back home, as NBC celebrates the start of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games in Beijing with the familiar theme music and opening ceremonies, the network has promised not to whitewash the political backdrop. But while more Americans seem to know they’re supposed to say that China is a threat, or at minimum a competitor, polling shows it’s clearer than ever that many don’t know why. They’re just saying it. Or maybe they’re just repeating what they were told to say, while waiting for the mixed doubles round robin curling session to start on the USA network. 

New survey results should make it clear: there’s room to educate the nation. Two weeks ago, Pew polled Americans about the games and China. Survey respondents said, for example, that they supported the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott by a two-to-one margin. But here’s the thing: 45 percent of the total said “they have not read or heard anything” about the boycott. 

Most Americans don’t actually give a flying ski jumper about China, not in the way that Washington does. That’s probably why more than half of Americans, or 54 percent, told Pew they see China as a competitor. Only 35 percent said they’re the enemy. Partisans, however, are making an impact on their followers. An earlier Pew poll in January found the share of Democrats who approve of Biden’s handling of China has fallen from 83 percent one year ago to just 65 percent. Republicans who approve have fallen to the rock bottom, from 19 percent to nine. 

Right-wing media personalities and GOP leaders in Congress have been beating the drum for months on national airwaves claiming that Biden and Democrats are not just weak on China, they’re in bed with Beijing. The talking point, as we’ve heard from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., is that all of the American private sectors that Republicans love to demonize as liberal-loving donors to the Democrats–Hollywood, technology gurus, and sports stars–are aiding China, still do business with China, and refuse to boycott China—and therefore the Biden administration is losing the great power competition and endangering national security. The right is flooding airwaves and inboxes with this message. 

It’s resonating, as the polls show. But the China drumbeat is showing it has limits. Even though the GOP and the Trump administration pushed the China threat hard since at least 2019, moderate Republicans are resisting. In the January poll, 52 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of Democrats called China a threat. Among conservative Republicans, support jumps to 62 percent.

The left? Well, many continue to speak up for Uighars and call out China for genocide. Fewer outside of Washington are calling for decoupling with China for other reasons, like pure geopolitics, U.S. competitiveness, or democracy-building. On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called on Olympic watchers “to catalyze an international fight against the injustices taking place in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and throughout China.” The commission held a two-hour hearing ahead of the opening ceremonies, featuring democracy and human rights activists, at which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., condemned the IOC, its corporate sponsors, and China, while praising the diplomatic boycott and supporting U.S. athletes’ participation. 

It’s hard to tell when a politician so partisan-minded as Cruz is serious about China. The longtime Armed Services Committee member could help to educate Americans and build an old-school Senate consensus on China-focused policies that protect the nation while also seeking ways to build bridges to peace. Congress is still finding its way on China politics. House GOP members last month demanded that executives at NBC Universal, which owns U.S. coverage of the Beijing Olympics, say how they’ll keep their noses clean from the Chinese Communist Party. That seems fair. On the left, lawmakers are moving the America COMPETES Act, a bill designed to foster global competitiveness. Republicans blasted it, along with the White House, on the grounds that it omits specific mention of China.

Instead of building a Team USA consensus on China while Americans watch the Beijing games, the right and left are falling into their own games. In the meantime, I’m going to watch the games and use this moment to teach my children about how the world works and how to carve a downhill turn. I want them to celebrate young athletes of the world competing in sports at the most elite levels while trying to make friendships and bonds that will be swifter, higher, faster–and last longer–than the politics that govern them. 

Washington could help itself and act more like America’s Olympians. Get serious and get better positioned to compete with China instead of each other.