China Opens Great Firewall for Olympians, But Governments Recommend Leaving Phones At Home

Several national Olympic committees have warned their athletes about bringing personal phones and other electronic devices to the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, citing fears of digital surveillance in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has announced that foreign athletes will be allowed to access websites and online apps that are normally blocked by the Great Firewall, in order to counter global perception of the Chinese internet as being closed. Rachel Bachman and Louise Radnofsky from The Wall Street Journal reported on the caution given to American athletes:

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee is encouraging Team USA to use disposable or “burner” phones instead of bringing their own devices to China, because of possible surveillance during the Games that begin Feb. 4.

The guidance was set out in an advisory document in September and a bulletin in December. The bulletin said to plan that “every device, communication, transaction and online activity may be monitored. Your device(s) may also be compromised with malicious software, which could negatively impact future use.”

The recommended use of temporary phones signals how different the approach to these Olympics is from previous Games, where advice to athletes generally consists of following local laws and being respectful of cultural norms. [Source]

The U.S. is not alone in its concern. Canada’s sports minister revealed that the Canadian Olympic Committee is providing its athletes with cybersecurity briefings to combat the threat of espionage, and recommended that they leave their personal phones at home. In Europe, the Belgian Interfederal Olympic Committee advised its athletes to leave their personal laptops and smartphones at home, after consulting with the Belgian Foreign Ministry and embassy in Beijing. The British Olympic Association also warned its athletes and staff against bringing their personal phones, and offered to provide them with temporary phones. Similarly, the Dutch Olympic Committee will provide its athletes and staff with unused electronic devices for their duration in Beijing, in what a local Dutch newspaper described as an outright ban on bringing personal phones.

Chinese nationalists criticized these countries’ prudence. On Weibo, former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin posted: “This cracks me up. These people are treating participating in the Winter Olympics like they’re entering a wolves’ den or a  tigers’ lair. I think they’ve watched too many movies.” Manya Koetse from What’s On Weibo collected other negative netizen reactions to the Dutch Olympic Committee’s warning:  

“Do people from around the world think we’re like North Korea or something?” one person responded. Another commenter wrote: “They’d better not come. All of our snowflakes are equipped with small 5G chips, they will be monitored as long as they participate, it’s mainly to see if they’ll pick up things to eat from the floor, to see what they do when it rains, and to check if their urine and stool is showing any irregularities and stuff.” 

In other Weibo posts, users said: “I wonder what the Dutch and the Belgian people have to hide?”

[…] The nationalistic blogger GuyanMuchan (@孤烟暮蝉), who has over 6 million Weibo fans, also responded to the issue, writing: “Ridiculous, this is just shameless. As an athlete, what kind of classified information do you have that China would steal from you? Are you all spies with a second identity?” [Source]

While athletes may decide to leave their phones behind, the Chinese government is reportedly offering them the rare privilege of unrestricted internet access. Michael Lipin from Voice of America described Beijing’s pledge to crack open the Great Firewall for Olympic athletes

In a statement emailed to VOA, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that China, as host of the 2022 Beijing Games, will honor a promise to allow athletes and accredited foreign media to have open internet service in the Olympic Village, competition and noncompetition venues, and contracted media hotels.

“Accredited participants will be able to access open internet service with their own devices via wired or Wi-Fi OTN (optical transport network) connection … when purchasing Games SIM cards via the Beijing 2022 Rate Card program,” the IOC said.

[…] Some international athletes have already used the unrestricted Chinese Wi-Fi service at several test events held in October and November at Beijing Winter Olympics venues. American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, who competed at the Beijing bobsled time trials in late October, told VOA that her team used the Wi-Fi service to access WhatsApp, a messaging app that is owned by Meta (formerly Facebook) and that China has blocked since 2017. [Source]

However, as Ashley Gold, Ina Fried, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported for Axios, many experts remained skeptical about China’s temporary opening of the Great Firewall:

“It’s a way for China to easily spread positive narratives about the Beijing Olympics, in the midst of all of their human rights criticisms,” said Kenton Thibaut, resident China Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

[…] “They put on these airs as if they’re allowing freedom of speech and movement, things that are synonymous with the liberal tradition of the Olympics, but in reality, all of it is carefully monitored,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[…] “Even though they allow access to social media, I don’t think any athlete is going to tweet out something about Hong Kong or Taiwan,” Cha said.

“They will work with the IOC to clamp down on any athletes that do say anything, and then they’ll count on the Games to sort of capture everybody’s imagination,” he said. [Source]

It is unclear how willing athletes will be to use their privileged access to Western social media to speak out against human rights during the Games. The International Olympic Committee’s official guidelines allow athletes to voice their opinions on social media, but only insofar as they “respect the applicable laws” of China. These laws have sent dozens of Chinese citizens to prison for using Twitter and other foreign platforms. Moreover, most athletes have lucrative sponsorship deals, partially dependent on their visibility on social media, that may be jeopardized if their free speech blocks their sponsors from the Chinese market. 

Governments may be more willing to take a public stance on human rights. On Friday, Denmark announced that it would diplomatically boycott the Beijing Olympics, with its foreign minister stating that the Danish are “very concerned about the human rights situation in China.” Earlier in the day, a spokesperson from the Dutch foreign ministry also stated that the Netherlands would not send an official diplomatic delegation to the Games, citing concerns over COVID-19 and human rights. They join a host of other countries whose diplomats have refused to attend the Olympics over issues related to human rights and COVID-19, including the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Lithuania, and Sweden.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.