Winter watch: how China might keep a tight Olympic grip

In the lead-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics there have been two major side issues unrelated to sport: Covid, and human rights protests.

Chinese authorities have implemented an ambitious “closed loop” system to try to keep the Games free of a coronavirus outbreak, or at least keep any outbreaks away from the general population. When it comes to protests, authorities have put in a great deal of effort to contain them. Below we look at what issues may arise during the Games, and how authorities could react.

“Athletes must be aware that the information they provide on their visa applications has been used to create files and open-source collection efforts on them,” Nicholas Eftimiades, a US academic and former intelligence official, wrote for the Diplomat. “That research effort identifies and places athletes into at least two categories: first, those who have espoused public views that the CCP [Chinese Communist party] deems threatening … and second, those that have made public statements in support of China.”

Mobile phone tracking, CCTV systems and facial recognition technology would also be used, he said.

A mandatory app called MY2022 requires all those attending to upload personal and health information and report daily. It allows encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers to be “trivially sidestepped”, according to Citizen Lab, it does not make clear who can access the information, and it also contains a feature allowing users to report “politically sensitive” content.

Citizen Lab also discovered a series of online search terms earmarked for potential censorship, raising questions about promises made by the Chinese authorities of access to a less restricted internet for foreigners attending. The terms relate to topics including Xinjiang, Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, insults against China and its leaders, but also included neutral references to Chinese government agencies and figures.

Opinion among activists is split on whether athletes should use their platform during the Olympics to protest against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. Some, such as the director of the Tibet Action Institute, Lhadon Tethong, have appealed to them as “perhaps the most privileged and protected group in the world in China” to use the historic moment and speak out.

Others, including former Olympians and human rights groups, have advised that it may be safer to wait until they are on home soil, citing a warning from Chinese officials that behaviour that breaks Chinese rules or laws would lead to “certain punishment”.

“I personally think it’s unlikely [an athlete would be punished] during the Olympics, but then again they detained the two Michaels [Spavor and Kovrig], and other prominent foreigners,” said William Nee, of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). “Every year they get incrementally more repressive and less concerned with international opinion.”

He said there was also the risk that an act of protest sparks a nationalistic reaction from Chinese people, which would force the government to respond strongly, particularly if it targeted Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong.

In 2008 Beijing authorities designated three “demonstration zones” where permitted protests could take place. In reality no permits were approved and at least one activist was reportedly arrested after applying. This time around authorities “don’t even want to pretend”, said Teng Biao, a US-based human rights activist and University of Chicago scholar.

“A few days ago the Chinese Olympic officials said athletes can’t say something which is against Chinese law. That’s sheer intimidation of athletes. I think it’s not possible to have some kind of demonstration zone.”

Sui Muqing, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said anyone who might protest was likely to be monitored. “The probability of protests during the Olympics is not high because the Chinese authorities attach great importance to major events, [and implement] social stability maintenance and control measures.”

Before major sensitive events such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, authorities in China often send dissidents and activists on enforced holidays to home villages for the duration, or, in more extreme cases, detain them. Human rights activists say this is happening for the Olympics.

Several activists point to the recent detention of two prominent activists, the lawyer Xie Yang and the writer Yang Maodong, and note that the human rights lawyer Tang Jitian has not been heard from since early December.

Authorities have also reportedly restricted WeChat accounts.

The Beijing Games have been the subject of a large boycott campaign calling for sponsors to dissociate themselves over China’s human rights abuses, particularly those against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. None have dropped out and the major sponsors are not responding to press queries, but there is a distinct lack of the big Olympic-themed promotions that normally appear this close to the opening ceremony.

Burton, a snow gear company that is not a sponsor but does operate in Xinjiang, granted an interview to the BBC but it did not go very well for them.

Many of the recent boycott campaigns have focused on the use of cotton sourced from Xinjiang, where there are widespread allegations of forced labour, among other abuses. Last week the IOC said no forced labour was used in the making of Olympic uniforms, after concerns were raised by the US congressional committee on China.

Sporting stars are generally not so involved in politics and protests, but last year the case of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai proved a large exception. Peng disappeared from public view for weeks after she posted an essay to Weibo describing an alleged sexual assault by a former senior official with whom she had previously had a secret relationship.

Athletes and activists have continued to publicly voice their concerns – most recently at the Australian Open – about Peng’s wellbeing. But inside China the topic of Peng remains completely censored.

There are big questions now on whether foreign athletes will raise her case while on Chinese soil, and if they do, who will see it. Nee said the censorship was still there, and we were unlikely to see an appearance by Peng “if they can get away with it”.

The International Olympic Committee has largely backed Beijing’s claim that Peng is under no control or duress, and has said its president, Thomas Bach, will meet her during the Games.

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