The Emblem of Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games is installed at Shijingshan district on August 1, 2021 in Beijing, China.

The Emblem of Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games is installed at Shijingshan district on August 1, 2021 in Beijing, China. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China Hawks Try for Beijing Olympics Boycotts on Defense Bill

Democrats rejected proposals that could affect military bases, but unlikely allies appear to be forming.

The debate over boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics surfaced in the House Armed Services Committee’s consideration of its annual defense bill on Wednesday, revealing how bipartisan China hawks are struggling to find ways to punish the regime.

Some lawmakers argued that sponsors of the Beijing Winter Olympics, such as Coca-Cola or Procter & Gamble, shouldn’t be allowed to sell their products on military installations. But others were reluctant to prevent military families from buying Tide laundry detergent or to punish athletes who have worked for more than a decade to reach the pinnacle of their sport. 

The proposal ultimately failed by a bipartisan 22-36 vote. Only one Democrat joined 21 Republicans, though other Democrats expressed support for  finding ways Congress can get tougher on China. 

That problem—that officials want to target Beijing but aren’t willing to accept negative consequences to do so—is emblematic of the broader issue Washington faces in combating China’s rise, experts say. 

“If you want to use elements of national power, hard power or soft power, it will cost you something,” said Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. “What we’re saying now as a nation is that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” 

Lawmakers recognized that the spirited debate during the markup of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was a stand-in for the broader problem America faces in approving actions to back up strong anti-China rhetoric.  

“I do think this amendment is a microcosm of what makes this competition so difficult,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., “There is no painless way to selectively economically decouple from China, and yet that is what we must do to be successful going forward.”

Committee members considered two amendments that would leverage the military to discredit the Winter Olympics set to be held in February in Beijing. Lawmakers adopted one by voice vote that would prohibit using military planes and pilots to fly any U.S. officials to the games in China, though defense appropriations could still be used for security at the Olympics. In practice, the amendment makes it difficult if not impossible for the White House to send a delegation to China, though Sarantakes said it does “absolutely nothing” to enact real change in China.  

The second amendment, which failed to pass the committee, would have prohibited any sponsor of the International Olympic Committee from selling its products on military installations. That means products such as Coca-Cola or Crest toothpaste, made by Procter & Gamble, could no longer be sold on bases. Other Olympic sponsors include Toyota, Visa, and Panasonic. 

“We can not stand by while corporations pump billions into the [Chinese Communist Party] and fund the very military build up that this committee is so concerned about. It’s like giving fuel to the arsonist as we spend billions to build a firefighting service,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., a former Army officer who introduced the two amendments on this topic.

That proposal would have had “real bite” if adopted, Sarantakes said, since it would impact the finances of the International Olympic Committee, which gets the majority of its funding from sponsors.

A March report found that China has violated the 1948 Genocide Convention with its treatment of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group living in western China. The group has faced mass internment, violence and murder, the destruction of its culture, and forced sterilization to prevent group members from having children. 

Lawmakers have previously urged the companies to revoke their sponsorship of the games over these concerns, but executives have so far refused. When executives from Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb, Intel, and Procter & Gamble testified before Congress in July, they refused to say that the Olympics should be moved to another country.

“We’ve all heard many of these about their moral responsibility and speak out on social and political issues in the past year….Where is their moral responsibility now when addressing the Chinese Community Party’s gross violation of human rights?” Waltz said, holding up a poster with logos of companies he said are sponsoring the “genocide Olympics.”

Republicans have long contended that Democrats are too weak on China, and more than one-third of Americans agreed that President Joe Biden had not done enough to take on Beijing, according to a February poll shortly after his inauguration. But the Olympics have caused some Democrats to speak out on China, including House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelos, D-Calif., who in May called for a diplomatic boycott of the games.

The proposal to economically punish American companies that sponsor the International Olympic Committee drew support from across the political spectrum. Those who voted yes include loyalists to President Donald Trump, such as Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and former White House doctor Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, as well as lone Democrat Rep. John Garamendi, of California, who once threatened a “serious altercation” with the former president’s eldest son over the coronavirus.

“You are on the right track, Mr. Waltz,” Garamendi said. “Sometimes big things start small and this one seems to be starting with the Olympics….Often it’s one voice that starts a movement. Mr. Waltz, I want you to stay with it. You’ll have my support.” 

The House panel approved the policy bill early Thursday morning, but it will still need to be voted on by the full House and then reconciled with the Senate’s version of the legislation before final passage. That means that, while the proposal was rejected in committee, the bill is not yet finalized.

The vote shows that the idea has the potential to unite unlikely allies if it were to be considered again. China hawks would likely support the crackdown on Beijing, while more progressive supporters of human rights could approve of the condemnation of the genocide against the Uyghurs. In his remarks, Garamendi cited remarks Rep. Maxine Water, D-Calif., made against the South African apartheid.

Those who spoke out against the amendments sought to still appear tough on China, while laying out reasons why there are better options to counter Beijing. 

“Does anybody really think the [Chinese Communist Party] is going to change its conduct towards the Uyghurs or Taiwan or in the South China Sea because we prohibit U.S. officials from traveling to China to cheer on our athletes? Do we actually think that such travel signals to the CCP that the U.S. condones their behavior? Of course not!,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who prefaced her remarks by saying “I’m about as hawkish as anybody can be when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party.” Murphy, the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress, was a child when her family fled communist Saigon by boat in 1978 and was rescued by the U.S. Navy.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cautioned members to seriously consider the consequences of provoking China but getting little in return.

“I don’t think boycotting the Olympics will advance our interests. It will drive divisions with allies across the world for no particular accomplishment. This will in no way change China’s trajectory. It will simply ramp up the conflict to no particular benefit to us,” Smith said. 

Critics also claimed the proposals would harm Americans, while doing little to actually hurt China. 

“I’m afraid it’s a case of aiming your gun at the Chinese Communist Party but you’re hitting an innocent bystander, in this case American companies, military families, and athletes,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.

But advocates for the Uyghurs claim that arguments that athletes will not be able to compete or military families will not be able to buy the soda they want fall flat when a minority group is facing a genocide, and urged Congress and American companies to do more, including asking the International Olympic Committee to move the games to a new location.

“We don’t want athletes or military families to be negatively affected either, but the reality of the situation is the IOC has allowed a genocidal regime to host the Olympics,” said Julie Millsap, the director of public affairs and advocacy at the Campaign for Uyghurs. “Either way, if the athletes’s in an environment of genocide. That will be a stain on their careers.”