Olympic Athletes To Be Seen, Not Heard, Warns Beijing Organizing Committee

Olympians may face punishment for speech crimes if they criticize China while competing in Beijing, a member of the Beijing Organizing Committee warned in a press conference Tuesday. Prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the International Olympic Committee banned acts of political protest by athletes during the Games, but the press conference warning raises the specter that athletes will be held criminally liable for any political comments made while in China. At The Washington Post, Eva Dou reported on the press conference and China’s unique interpretation of the “Olympic spirit”:

“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 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.

[…] “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.” [Source]

As such, human rights organizations are urging athletes to remain silent while in Beijing to protect their own safety. At Reuters, Aadi Nair reported on a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch:

“There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” Rob Koehler, the director general of the Global Athlete group, said in the seminar. “Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns.

“So we’re advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete and use their voice when they get home.” [Source]

Prosecution or retaliation for speech crimes has become increasingly common in China. In November 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was the subject of a censorship campaign (and an apparent forced disappearance followed by a “forced reappearance”) after a Weibo post in which she accused a retired political cadre, former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. Her name remains among the most censored terms on the Chinese internet. The International Olympic Committee conducted two video-conference interviews with Peng, a three-time Olympian, but has not released the transcripts and continues to dismiss international concerns about her safety.

Some Olympic athletes are upset about being silenced. At The Guardian, Sean Ingle reported on one athlete’s reaction to the self-censorship that the U.S. Olympic delegation is asking from its athletes:

Meanwhile, the US Nordic skier Noah Hoffman, who competed at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, has said the American team was telling its athletes not to talk about human rights for their own safety.

“Athletes have an amazing platform and ability to speak out, to be leaders in society and yet the team is not letting them field questions on certain issues ahead of these Games,” he said. “That makes me upset.

“But my advice to athletes is to stay silent because it would threaten their own safety and that’s not a reasonable ask of athletes. They can speak out when they get back.”[Source]

A number of countries, including the United States, have instructed their Olympic delegations to leave personal phones at home due to fears about surveillance. A new report published by Toronto-based Citizen Lab indicates that such concerns are not unfounded. The MY2022 app, which all attendees are required to download, has major security flaws that may expose users’ data and make their devices more vulnerable to attack. The report indicates that the flaws are likely the product of ineptitude on the part of the app’s developers, rather than malicious intent. Citizen Lab’s Jeffrey Knockel, who authored the report, summarized some of its key findings:

  • MY2022, an app mandated for use by all attendees of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, has a simple but devastating flaw where encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers can be trivially sidestepped. Health customs forms which transmit passport details, demographic information, and medical and travel history are also vulnerable. Server responses can also be spoofed, allowing an attacker to display fake instructions to users.
  • MY2022 is fairly straightforward about the types of data it collects from users in its public-facing documents. However, as the app collects a range of highly sensitive medical information, it is unclear with whom or which organization(s) it shares this information.
  • MY2022 includes features that allow users to report “politically sensitive” content. The app also includes a censorship keyword list, which, while presently inactive, targets a variety of political topics including domestic issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet as well as references to Chinese government agencies. [Source]

Citizen Lab’s Knockel said that the app’s inactive list of censored words “can be enabled at the flick of a switch.” Lists of words that trigger automatic censorship are common on Chinese apps with chat functionality. Indeed, these lists are now viewed as proprietary assets by China’s tech giants, as CDT’s Eric Liu told Protocol: “Why? No one will hand it to you. You can’t communicate openly about what needs to be censored. Authorities definitely won’t give you a specific list. So you have to come up with your own list. And if you do it well, that will give you a leg up in the competition.” Despite the documented flaws of the MY2022 app, the International Olympic Committee has defended the product. An IOC spokesperson waved off security concerns by citing the “special measures” needed to prevent COVID outbreaks in the “closed loop environment” of the Games.

It is Chinese citizens, of course, rather than visiting athletes, who are most at risk for censorship and surveillance. In 2015, while the IOC was voting on whether to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to China or Kazakhstan, Chinese activists warned that holding the Games in Beijing would only encourage the continued arrests of lawyers, activists, and human rights campaigners. A round-up of prominent human rights activists in the lead-up to the Games has proven this warning to be prophetic. At The Wall Street Journal, Chao Deng reported on the arrests of legal activists Xie Yang and Yang Maodong [pen name: Guo Feixiong] in the weeks preceding the Games:

Free-speech advocate Yang Maodong was formally detained in the southern city of Guangzhou on suspicion of inciting subversion on Jan. 12, two days after his wife died of cancer in the U.S., according to his sister.

[…] Xie Yang, a 49-year old lawyer who has taken up politically sensitive cases related to religion and land rights, was detained on Jan. 11, also on subversion charges, and is being held in the southern city of Changsha.

[…] “You can imagine authorities all over the country are tightening control pre-emptively to strike out any potential dissent and criticism,” said Renee Xia, a senior researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Washington, D.C., based group.

[…] “The intentional use of such strong-arm tactics is intended to warn possible opponents within and outside the system, and to tell the West that China will not compromise on human-rights issues,” Wang Dan, a student leader during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, said in response to the detentions of Messrs. Yang and Xie. “The international community should have a tougher way of responding.” [Source]


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