China warns foreign athletes: Political statements ‘against the Olympic spirit’ subject to punishment

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Ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, China is warning foreign athletes that they may face punishment for speech the Chinese government deems is “against the Olympic spirit.”

This follows a similar warning from human rights activists, worried that public freedoms may be met with reprisals during the global games, Fox News reported.

Yang Shu, deputy director-general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC), did not mince words, stating, “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected.”

However, “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang stressed during a news conference held Tuesday.

According to Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) charter, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Under this rule, any political protest at any of the games is grounds for punishment.

What China may consider a “protest” or an appropriate punishment for such actions has many feeling uneasy given China’s ongoing mistreatment of its own Muslim-majority Uyghur people and its policies toward Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Communist country has a long and questionable history of restrictive laws governing public speech, and many fear the Beijing games could see greater punishments doled out, as “applicable local law” will dictate what manner of punishments any infractions would incur.

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes they can use to prosecute people’s free speech,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang stated, according to Fox News, citing a list of potential offenses that are seen as provoking trouble or inciting subversion.

The cost of speaking out in China can be dangerously high. Just recently, the world watched anxiously as Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai suddenly disappeared from public view after claiming on China’s popular social media platform, Weibo, that she was sexually assaulted by a former Beijing official. Following thunderous public outcry and demands for proof of life from western media, Peng was paraded in front of the cameras to show she was safe, however many believed her movements and speech remained restricted.

Add to that a report, Tuesday, from a Canadian cybersecurity group, Citizen Lab, that claims the health-tracking smartphone app Olympic attendees will be forced to download is riddled with security flaws, including a list of political keywords and a feature to report “politically sensitive content,” as Fox News noted, and it seems the spirit of Big Brother may dampen the Olympic spirit Beijing claims it wishes to protect.

Meanwhile, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesman for China, dismissed concerns that some countries, including the United States, have advised athletes to bring burner phones to Beijing to avoid unwanted surveillance by the Chinese government.

Zhao insisted China’s actions are innocent, stating that countries “guilty of the charge themselves are accusing the innocent party without any evidence.”

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