China warns Olympic athletes who protest rights abuses are subject to 'certain punishment'

The Olympic Rings are seen inside one of the Athletes Villages for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics before the area was closed on January 3, 2022, in Chongli county, Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, northern China. The area, which will host ski and snowboard events during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics was closed off to all tourists and visitors as of January 4, 2022, and will be part of the bubble due to the global coronavirus pandemic for athletes, journalists and officials taking part in the games. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are set to open February 4. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A Chinese government official has warned that foreign athletes participating at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing next month could be “subject to punishment” if they speak out about rights issues, especially against Chinese laws and regulations.

“Any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” said Yang Shu, deputy director general of Beijing 2022’s International Relations Department, said during a virtual briefing Wednesday.

According to Reuters, Yang stated at the press conference hosted by China’s embassy in Washington that an athlete’s accreditation could be canceled if they don’t follow Olympic guidelines on speech. Yang argued that the “politicization of sports” is forbidden under the Olympic Charter. 

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites.” During the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year, the rule was relaxed to allow for gestures on the field as long as they were not disruptive and disrespectful. 

The International Olympics Committee has received much criticism for placing the Winter Games in China. Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing genocide against Uighur and other ethnic minority Muslims in the Western Xinjiang province.

As many as 1 to 3 million individuals are believed to have been placed in concentration camps by the Chinese government under the guise of fighting extremism and crime. Human rights advocates and survivors have claimed that such camps are designed to make individuals more supportive of the Chinese Communist Party and more culturally Chinese. 

China has often been accused of rights abuses against other religious minorities such as Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners. 

The Winter Games will begin on Feb. 4.

Last year, the Trump administration designated China’s persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang — including mass internment, forced labor and forced sterilization — as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” The genocide designation has been maintained under the Biden administration. 

China has been labeled for years by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom violations.

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Olympics. 

Australia’s sports minister, Richard Colbeck, called the Chinese official’s comments “very concerning.” 

“The International Olympics Committee has made it clear that all athletes have the right to political opinions and the freedom to express them, including through social media and media interviews,” Colbeck told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Last November, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai suddenly disappeared for weeks after she accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her in a social media post that was later deleted.

The Tennis star’s disappearance is “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes speak out, Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang argued this week. 

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” Wang said, according to The Guardian. “People can be charged with picking quarrels or provoking trouble. There are all kinds of crimes that can be leveled at peaceful, critical comments. And in China the conviction rate is 99%.”

Experts say the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was a “soft power win” for China and that the 2022 Olympics has the potential to be the same. Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, warned that athletes traveling to Beijing should be aware of China’s surveillance capabilities. 

“The authorities use across the country now where tools like AI and predictive policing, big data databases, extensive surveillance of social media platforms, keeps people from engaging in certain kinds of conversations,” Richardson was quoted as saying. “Anyone who’s traveling to the country for these games — journalists, athletes, coaches — needs to be aware that this kind of surveillance could affect them.”

Researchers warned this week that a mandatory smartphone app that athletes must use to report their sensitive health information during the Beijing Games due to concern over COVID-19 has encryption and security issues. 

“Of course, China’s app to monitor ‘the health’ of athletes has major security flaws,” former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a tweet. “The CCP will look for any opportunity to gather information and use it against them. All Olympic athletes must understand the tremendous risk of traveling to Beijing.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. and several other countries advised Olympic athletes to use disposable or “burner” phones and not bring their own devices to China due to the communist government’s possible surveillance.

“Every device, communication, transaction and online activity may be monitored,” reads a bulletin by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. “Your device(s) may also be compromised with malicious software, which could negatively impact future use.”

At this week’s unveiling of the 2022 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most persecution, the persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA called on Christians to boycott the Beijing Olympics as China has often cracked down on unregistered house church movements. 

“China is using a blanket of surveillance monitored by artificial intelligence to watch the movements of people of faith,” Open Doors USA CEO David Curry said during a press conference. “It’s even using facial recognition to monitor those who enter places of worship.”

“China recently implemented additional restrictions on Christian Bibles and literature online, for example,” he continued. “Only groups that recognize the Communist Party of China and their censorship of their sermons and Bibles will be allowed to distribute the Scripture.”

While Open Doors USA ranked China 17th among the “top 50 countries where it’s most difficult to follow Jesus,” Curry dedicated a significant portion of the press conference to highlight the religious persecution perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party.

He cited the upcoming Olympic Games as “one example of how China is using sports, money and investment in infrastructure around the world to whitewash their human rights violations.”

While Curry praised the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, he stressed that every Christian in the U.S. have an obligation to go a step further.

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