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China warns foreign Olympic athletes against speaking out on politics at Winter Games

By Eva Dou


Student activists protest the Beijing Winter Olympics during a rally outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan. 14. (Tatan Syuflana/AP).

A member of China’s Olympics organizing committee warned that foreign athletes may face punishment for speech that violates Chinese law at the 2022 Winter Games, spotlighting concerns about the country’s restrictions on political expression. “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected," Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said in a news conference Tuesday. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

In broad strokes, China’s stance falls in line with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) established rule against political protest at the Games. The IOC also announced before last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo that athletes who staged protests there would be punished, ignoring U.S. calls to allow respectful protest for human rights issues.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault, global outrage put a spotlight on the Winter Games. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But China’s formulation of its rule appeared to be a shade stricter than the IOC’s, raising questions about how Beijing plans to interpret and enforce it. Rule 50 of the IOC charter forbids “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic venues. Yang said Tuesday that “speech” could be subject to punishment and cited Chinese law, which is far more restrictive than many countries'.

Beijing’s warning came amid discussion in the West over expected political restrictions and surveillance at the Games, which will take place next month. Speakers at a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said they were advising athletes against criticizing China’s human rights record while in Beijing for their own safety, according to Reuters.

A child practices ice hockey on a frozen pond near the Beijing Olympic Tower in the Chinese capital on Tuesday. The Winter Olympics will take place in China next month. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

In China, critics of the government have routinely been sentenced to prison for staging political protests, or for comments they made on social media. While it’s unlikely Beijing would risk international ire to severely punish an athlete at the Olympics for speech, Yang declined to answer on Tuesday what the maximum punishment could be for political demonstration at the Games.

China’s human rights record has come under heavy scrutiny ahead of the Olympics, with the United States and several other countries announcing a diplomatic boycott of the event as a statement against China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”

Athletes’ freedom of speech in China has also become a flash point, after Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai made explosive allegations against China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in November, saying he coerced her into sex. Peng disappeared from public view, prompting international expressions of concern for her safety.

The Canadian cybersecurity research group Citizen Lab reported Tuesday that the health-tracking smartphone app that Olympics attendees are required to download has security flaws that made users’ personal data vulnerable. The app’s code included a list of political keywords and a feature that allows users to report “politically sensitive" content, Citizen Lab’s report said.

A representative of the Beijing Organizing Committee said at Tuesday’s news conference they were not aware of the political keyword list and would look into the matter. The official said they were working to patch any security vulnerabilities in the app.

China’s Foreign Ministry also fielded questions on Tuesday about reports that the United States and other countries have advised athletes to take “burner phones” to Beijing to avoid surveillance. Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the concerns, saying those countries “who are guilty of the charge themselves are accusing the innocent party without any evidence.”

Beijing announced on Monday it was canceling public ticket sales to the Games, as the city recorded its first case of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. Jing Quan, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said at Tuesday’s news conference that only a few direct flights will remain between the United States and China next week, with others canceled because of coronavirus cases among passengers.

Yang said “dedicated departments” will evaluate punishment for athletes who violate the IOC political protest ban.

“I think for the athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, they should follow the spirit and requirements provided by the Olympic Charter,” he said. “The politicization of sports is one of the things opposed by the Olympic Charter.”


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