Written by Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19.
China’s refusal to address its rights abuses ahead of the Olympics, and its ongoing efforts to twist the narrative through information warfare during the Games, underscores what should have been clear from the start. No country committing gross human rights abuses and atrocity crimes or engaged in global influence campaigns to assault the international rights-based system should be permitted to host a global event.
The Beijing Olympics are over but the Games will be forever tainted by the abuses of its host country and the failure of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and sponsors to act. Long before the Games began, the IOC was warned that rather than easing its authoritarian restrictions, China would use this platform to shamelessly skirt accountability. Nobody can claim that they couldn’t see this coming.
In November 2021, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) had raised concerns over the ‘lack of transparency and clarity’ regarding Olympics-related reporting, reiterating concerns of surveillance and censorship of foreign correspondents. In a January 2022 report on media freedom in China, the FCCC noted ‘foreign correspondents are facing unprecedented hurdles covering China… due to excessive intimidation or outright expulsion.’ Meanwhile, nearly 130 Chinese journalists are currently detained, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Ahead of the Games, the Beijing organising committee also warned international athletes that they would be punished for any expression China deemed out of bounds. These aren’t idle threats for China, which has not shied away from the lengthy and arbitrary detention of foreign nationals, from Canadian former diplomat Michael Kovrig to Australian journalist Cheng Lei. The disappearance of Olympian Peng Shuai leading up to the Games also underscores the severity of risks in speaking out. It is no wonder that athletes have acknowledged feeling the need to self-censor in China.
The IOC has been noticeably silent on these threats to free expression, despite its Charter enjoining it to take ‘all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.’ IOC Rule 50.2 Guidelines, introduced ahead of the Tokyo Games, also reiterates that athletes should be allowed to express their views, including during interviews or on social media.
In a December 2021 interview, IOC President Thomas Bach claimed that the IOC would live up to its responsibilities, including to ‘freedom of the press, open internet, [and] freedom of expression for athletes.’ Sadly, although unsurprisingly, the real situation has been marked by the assault on free expression and other human rights.
Harassment of journalists
The Opening Ceremony kicked off with Dutch journalist, Sjoerd den Daas being forcibly dragged off-camera by plainclothes security officials during a live broadcast, while others tried to confiscate his equipment. While the IOC tried to dismiss it as a one-off, the next day Den Daas tweeted that in light of the preceding weeks’ police harassment of journalists reporting on the Games, it was hard to see what happened to him as an isolated incident.
A few days later, another foreign journalist, Patrick Fok, tweeted that while interviewing people in a Beijing shopping district security had stopped him and even after he had presented his press pass told him that he wasn’t allowed to ask how people were enjoying the Olympics.
The FCCC, in a 21 February statement, expressed dismay ‘that the conditions for independent reporting in China continue to fall short of international standards during the Winter Olympic Games.’
Surveillance and censorship
China had promised that foreign correspondents and athletes would have free access to an open internet, outside the Great Firewall, a promise that nobody should have taken seriously. As expected, China did not cede information control and the shadow of surveillance and censorship has loomed over the Games.
The limited easing of internet controls was not available in private spaces, only hotel lobbies, media centres, or Olympics venues, and only for foreigners—Chinese media and support staff were denied access to the touted open WiFi. The deposit for an open SIM card was outrageously expensive.
In early January, CitizenLab, a digital rights research centre at the University of Toronto, reported that the MY2022 App mandatory for all Olympics participants had serious security flaws and features that risked exposing users’ personal data, a blacklist of censored keywords, and a feature to report ‘politically sensitive’ content.
In light of security flaws, international participants were advised to assume all devices and online activity would be monitored and to leave their devices at home, prompting Wired to muse that these are the ‘burner phone Olympics.’ One Olympian admitted ahead of arriving in China that, ‘I feel like I spent the last week or so before I flew out here stressed about passwords and phones and things versus my performance, being healthy, and getting good sleep.’
A spokesperson for the IOC reportedly said that it was up to each country to provide security advice to its delegations, which woefully fails to acknowledge the underlying issue of why a country where such measures are needed has been allowed to host the event in the first place.
Finnish skier, Katri Lylynpera said that she was ordered by Chinese officials to delete photos she had posted to Instagram of the poor conditions at the athletes’ village, presumably because they cast China in a bad light.
Eileen Gu, a US-born skier competing for China, has downplayed information control in China. In response to a comment on Instagram—‘why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from mainland China cannot…can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom’—Gu replied, ‘anyone can download a VPN. Its literally free on the App Store.’
Gu is wrong. Since 2017, Apple has been complying with China’s censorship regime to ban all VPNs from the App Store. In China, the use of encryption and circumvention tools such as VPNs are all but criminalised and operators have faced disproportionate prison sentences. Gu’s response was not only obliviously wrong, but what happened next underscored the reality of internet controls that she seemed to be trying to downplay.
A screenshot of the Instagram exchange was posted to Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. The original post has been shared more than 3,800 times and generated nearly 1,000 comments, with many Weibo users calling Gu out. Like Orwellian clockwork, the screenshot mentioning VPNs has been censored on Weibo.
Ahead of the Games, former Olympian skier Noah Hoffman said that he was ‘scared’ for the safety of any athlete who might speak out about human rights in China. This fear has been felt by others. In general, self-censorship has prevailed.
Gus Kenworthy, British-American skier, admitted to having to ‘tread lightly’ while in China, especially following more critical comments he had made before arriving at Beijing. Kenworthy has previously said, ‘I don’t think countries should be allowed to host the Games when they have things happening that are so egregious, and there are insane human rights atrocities happening.’
Swedish double gold medallist Nils van der Poel called it ‘extremely irresponsible’ to allow Beijing to host the Games over human rights concerns but stopped short of speaking more freely out of fear of reprisal for others. Once he was back home, he told a Swedish news outlet that he ‘shouldn’t say too much about it, because we still have a squad in China.’
Olympics censorship has even silenced non-Olympian athletes outside of China. Enes Kanter Freedom, who used to play for the Boston Celtics basketball team, says that NBA officials, no doubt concerned about lost revenue, have been pressuring him to shut up since he starting calling out human rights abuses in China. For example, in October 2022, he wore a pair of shoes painted ‘Free Tibet.’ He says two NBA executives told him to remove the shoes. He refused and at halftime the Celtics manager told him that China had banned the broadcast of all Celtics games going forward. He said, ‘it took them 24 minutes to ban everything… that clearly shows the dictatorship over there.’
What has transpired for Freedom since has shown what happens when dictatorships exert global influence, and how China has wielded its position to pressure increasing corporate censorship.
Earlier in February, the Celtics traded Freedom to the Houston Rockets who promptly dropped him. It is likely no coincidence that before he was effectively expelled from the NBA, he had appeared in a television campaign endorsing a boycott of the Winter Olympics and its corporate sponsors, including NBA power-backer Nike.
Beijing has also sought other ways to manipulate the narrative, employing some of the same tactics of propaganda it employs to evade accountability and spread disinformation around Xinjiang.
For example, in November 2021, China hired Vippi Media, an American consulting firm, to contract social media influencers on Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms to execute influence operations relating to the Olympics. For the $300,000 contract, the firm promised to deliver at least 3 million impressions on platforms preferred by American youth. When asked about China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the firm said they were aware but undeterred.
This approach is part of the broader strategy of influence operations from China to manipulate global media landscapes. Since 2016, in the US alone, Chinese party-state actors have spent over $170 million dollars on propaganda, according to US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) disclosures. China has pursued a number of media-influence tactics to spread disinformation around the world.
Beijing has also employed computational propaganda for a variety of issues, no less so the Olympics.
The FCCC noted that a number of journalists were targeted by online harassment campaigns following Olympics reporting, at times from social media accounts linked to state media and Chinese diplomats.
China’s global manipulation on the same social media platforms it bans domestically is emblematic. In mid-February 2022, the New York Times and ProPublica identified at least 3,000 inauthentic-looking Twitter accounts engaged in coordinated boosting of Chinese state media to drown out criticism or attack opponents, such as those advocating for a boycott. Following the report, Twitter suspended hundreds of the identified accounts for violating the platforms’ manipulation policy.
The medal ceremonies may be over, but until China is no-longer able to act with impunity, its record of abuse and nefarious global influence should eclipse its efforts at sportswashing.
At the end of the day, with its record, China should never have been allowed to host the Olympics in the first place. When it comes to protecting human rights, this isn’t a game.
For more information
Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager, [email protected].
Updated on 24 February 2022 to remove reference to claims by a security researcher about the MY2022 App that have been contested.