Beijing Winter Olympics participants face an “Orwellian surveillance state” in China and could be putting themselves in danger if they speak out for Uyghur Muslims, human rights and athletes’ advocacy groups have said.
In a blunt message ahead of the Games, which begin on February 4, they also warned athletes not to expect protection from the International Olympic Committee if they campaign for human rights or criticize the Chinese authorities.
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai was “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes spoke up.
“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s freedom of expression,” she said. “People can be accused of starting a fight or provoking trouble. There are all kinds of crimes that can be aimed at peaceful, critical comment. And in China, the conviction rate is 99%.”
dr Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said:
“One of the hallmarks of the 2008 games was the agency’s use of what was then considered high technology but pales in comparison to the Orwellian surveillance state.
“Across the country, authorities are now using tools like AI and predictive policing, big data databases and extensive monitoring of social media platforms that discourage people from engaging in certain types of conversations. Anyone traveling to the country for these games – journalists, athletes, coaches – needs to be aware that this type of surveillance could hit them.”
Meanwhile, US Nordic skier Noah Hoffman, who competed in the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, said the US team had told its athletes not to talk about human rights for their own safety.
“Athletes have an amazing platform and ability to speak up, to take a leadership role in society, and yet the team doesn’t let them ask questions about specific issues ahead of these games,” he said. “That upsets me.
“But my advice to athletes is to remain silent because it would endanger their own safety, and that’s not a reasonable demand of athletes. They can talk when they come back.”
That message was echoed by Rob Koehler, director-general of the best-known international advocacy group for athletes, Global Athlete, who called on the IOC to announce that it would support competitors who speak out for human rights.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that we’re telling athletes to shut up,” he said. “But the IOC has not spoken out proactively to indicate it will protect them.
“Silence is complicity and that’s why we have concerns. We therefore advise athletes not to comment. We want them to compete and use their voice when they come home.”