China has issued a warning to foreign athletes about potential punishment they may face for speech that is “against the Olympic spirit” or “violates Chinese law” at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC), said during a news conference on Jan. 18 that “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected.”
“Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang added.
The upcoming Games are scheduled to begin on Feb. 4 in Beijing and the surrounding Hebei Province. They have been the focus of controversy over accusations of rampant human rights abuse committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A few governments in the West, including the U.S, U.K and Canada, have announced that they will not send a political delegacy to China’s Olympics over concerns of alleged genocide and abuse experienced by Uyghur Muslims as well as other persecuted groups in the country.
The decision would serve as a diplomatic boycott and would only keep dignitaries, but not athletes, from partaking in the Games.
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Enhanced surveillance and security
Beijing’s warning came amid discussion in the West over expected political restrictions and surveillance at the Games. Speakers at a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch on Jan. 18 said they were advising athletes against criticizing China’s human rights record for their own safety.
”There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” Rob Koehler, the director general of 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.”
Pompeo warning to U.S. athletes
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also warned American athletes preparing for Beijing that based on experience, athletes will have to surrender some of their belongings during the event as part of enhanced security protocol by Chinese authorities.
“Olympic athletes must understand the risk in Beijing. The CCP has built the nastiest surveillance state in history & will monitor everything athletes say & do,” Pompeo tweeted on Jan. 12.
He added, “Our athletes should leave their phones & laptops at home — like I & my team did — & like the Dutch have been told to do.”
In China, critics of the government have been known to face jail time or even be subject to beatings for staging political protests or publicly speaking out against the Communist Party.
While experts believe it is unlikely Beijing would risk international wrath in targeting and severely punishing any Olympic athlete, Yang declined to answer what the maximum punishment could be for political demonstration at the Games.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter also states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
In addition, the CCP has enacted some of the most stringent preventative measures against COVID-19 and has locked down entire cities over a few reported cases. Nearby Tianjin, home to around 14 million people, has seen an increase in COVID policy while the cities of Xi’an and Yuzhou currently remain under total lockdown since late December.
Videos circulating on social media have revealed desperate pleas from residents in Xi’an as supplies reach dangerously low levels and people are not allowed to leave their quarantine sites to procure food and other essentials.