Asked about the possibility of athletes’ protests at next month’s Winter Games, an official in Beijing 2022 said that any sports behavior contrary to the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules or laws will be subject to a “certain penalty”.
It comes shortly after human rights advocates told athletes it was best for them to remain silent for the duration of the Games and amid concerns about the security of attendance data contained in the mandatory online phone app.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Yang Shuo, deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organizing committee, said athletes could face de-accreditation or other “certain penalties”.
“Any expression that is in keeping with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” Yang said. “Any behavior or speech contrary to the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, is also subject to a certain penalty.”
Acts of protest at the Games are generally against rules set by the International Olympic Committee, which has also warned athletes not to protest at the Tokyo Summer Games, or face a possible penalty.
However, there are growing concerns about the growing intolerance of protest, dissent or criticism in or against China. Several human rights activists and lawyers have been arrested and imprisoned, and last year Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai went into hiding for several weeks after publicly accusing a former high-ranking official of sexual assault, sparking an international campaign over her safety.
On Tuesday night, a forum hosted by Human Rights Watch warned athletes not to undertake any activity, including making statements, while in Beijing for the Games, and to be wary of the extraordinary extent of Chinese surveillance.
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at the organization, said Peng’s disappearance was a “good indicator of what could happen” if the athletes spoke up.
“Chinese laws are very vague about crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” she said. “There are all kinds of crimes that can be directed at peaceful critical comments. In China, the conviction rate is 99%.”
“Athletes have an amazing platform and ability to speak out, to be leaders in the community, and yet the team doesn’t allow them to answer questions about some of the issues ahead of these games,” said Nordic American skier and former Olympian Noah Hoffman. “But my advice to athletes is to remain silent because that will threaten their safety, and this is not a reasonable request for athletes. They can speak up when they come back.”
In the lead-up to the Games, there were concerns about how attendees’ data and privacy would be protected while in Beijing. Last week, team GB players were urged not to take their personal phones with them and instead were offered temporary replacements by the British Olympic Association, due to fears of government spying.
But a report published by technology security watchdog Citizen Lab on Wednesday warned an app that all attendees were authorized to download had a “fatal flaw” that left personal, medical, audio, and file transfer information vulnerable.
The MY2022 app collects sensitive personal information including username, phone number, ID number, email address, health information including daily reported health status, vaccination status and Covid test results.
Citizen Lab said the flaw allowed encryption protecting users’ voice and file transfers to be “trivially avoided”. “Health customs forms that transmit passport details, demographic information, medical history, and travel history are also at risk. Server responses can also be spoofed, allowing attackers to display fake instructions to users.”
Citizen Lab said the official Olympics handbook outlines a number of entities allowed to process that personal data, including the organizing committee and various Chinese authorities, but it did not specify “with whom or with which organization(s) will share users’ medical and health information.” .
The app also has a feature that allows users to report “politically sensitive” content, a keyword list that is currently inactive for censorship, relating to topics including Xinjiang, Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, insults against China and its leaders, and neutral references to Chinese government agencies and personalities.
In response, the IOC said that users can disable the app’s access to parts of their phones and that reviews from two unnamed cybersecurity organizations “confirmed that there were no critical vulnerabilities.”
It also said that installing the app is not required “as authorized personnel can log into the health monitoring system on the webpage instead”, but asked Citizen Lab to submit its report “to better understand their concerns”.
Citizen Lab said it reported the issues to the Chinese Olympic Organizing Committee in early December and gave it 15 days to respond and 45 days to fix the problem, but it has not received any response.
France AgencyBryce contributed to this report.