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Chinese official threatens to ‘punish’ Olympic athletes for speech that violates Chinese law

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
January 19, 2022

An official with China’s Olympics organizing committee has threatened athletes participating in the upcoming games with “punishment” for speech that violates Chinese law.

“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 on Wednesday, as reported by The Washington Post. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

The remarks come just one day after human rights activists warned athletes that they could face criminal prosecution if they criticized China during the Beijing Olympics.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has assured athletes that they will have freedom of speech while competing in the communist nation, the official Olympic Charter prohibits political protests during medal ceremonies and requires participants to follow “applicable public law.”

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes they can use to prosecute people’s free speech,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said.

The Chinese Communist Party has routinely sentenced individuals to prison for engaging in political protests, and even for posting comments on social media that are critical of the CCP. Yang avoided answering what the maximum punishment would be for foreign athletes who stage a protest at the Beijing Olympics.

During a briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch this week, activists noted that the IOC has not stated publicly how participants will be protected should they choose to speak out, The Associated Press reported.

“Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement which seeks to inspire positive change in world sport, according to the group’s website. “We know the human rights record and the allowance of freedom of expression in China, so there’s really not much protection.”

Several Olympic teams in Europe, as well as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, have been advising athletes to leave their personal phones behind and instead use temporary “burner” phones to avoid being spied on when they go to Beijing.

The U.S. committee’s advice to athletes was reportedly shared in an advisory document in September and then a bulletin in December. The bulletin reportedly advised athletes that their “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 bulletin added.

“Any person with a sane mind who hears all these things must have concerns,” Koehler added.