Protesting Winter Olympics athletes ‘face punishment’, suggests Beijing official

Any athlete behaviour that is against the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules or laws will be subject to “certain punishment”, a Beijing 2022 official has said in response to a question about the possibility of athlete protests at next month’s Winter Games.

It comes shortly after human rights advocates told athletes they were better off staying silent for the duration of the Games and amid concerns over the online security of attendees’ data contained in a mandatory phone app.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee, said athletes could face cancellation of accreditation or other “certain punishments”.

“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” said Yang. “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

Acts of protest at the Games are generally against the rules set by the International Olympic Committee, which also warned athletes not to protest at the Tokyo summer Games, or face potential punishment.

However, there are mounting concerns over the increasing intolerance of protest, dissent or criticism in or against China. Numerous human rights activists and lawyers have been arrested and jailed, and last year the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, disappeared from public view for several weeks after she publicly accused a former senior official of sexual assault, sparking an international campaign over her wellbeing.

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On Tuesday night, a forum hosted by Human Rights Watch warned athletes about conducting any activism, including making statements, while in Beijing for the Games, and to be wary of the extraordinary reach of Chinese surveillance.

Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for the organisation, said the disappearance of Peng was “a good indicator of what could possibly happen” if athletes spoke out.

“Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” she said. “There are all kinds of crimes that can be levelled at peaceful, critical comments. And in China the conviction rate is 99%.”

“Athletes have an amazing platform and ability to speak out, to be leaders in society and yet the team is not letting them field questions on certain issues ahead of these Games,” said the US Nordic skier and former Olympian Noah Hoffman. “But my advice to athletes is to stay silent because it would threaten their own safety and that’s not a reasonable ask of athletes. They can speak out when they get back.”

In the lead-up to the Games there have been concerns over how to protect attendees’ data and privacy while in Beijing. Last week, Team GB athletes were urged not to take their personal phones with them and were instead offered temporary replacements by the British Olympic Association, over government spying concerns.

But a report published on Wednesday by the tech security watchdog Citizen Lab warned an app that all attendees were mandated to download had a “devastating flaw” that left personal and medical information, voice audio and file transfers vulnerable.

The app, MY2022, collects sensitive personal information including a user’s name, phone number, ID number and email address, and health information including daily self-reported health status, vaccination status and Covid test results.

The flaw allowed encryption protecting users’ voice audio and file transfers to be “trivially sidestepped”, Citizen Lab said. “Health customs forms which transmit passport details, demographic information, and medical and travel history are also vulnerable. Server responses can also be spoofed, allowing an attacker to display fake instructions to users.”

Citizen Lab said the official Olympic Games Playbook outlines a number of entities that are allowed to process that personal data, including the organising committee and various Chinese authorities, but it did not specify “with whom or with which organisation(s) it would share users’ medical and health-related information”.

The app also contains a feature allowing users to report “politically sensitive” content, and a currently inactive censorship keyword list, relating to topics including Xinjiang, Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, insults against China and its leaders, and neutral references to Chinese government agencies and figures.

In response, the International Olympic Committee said users could disable the app’s access to parts of their phones and that assessments from two unnamed cybersecurity organisations “confirmed that there are no critical vulnerabilities”.

It also said installing the app was not required “as accredited personnel can log on to the health monitoring system on the web page instead”, but it had asked Citizen Lab for its report “to understand their concerns better”.

Citizen Lab said it had told the Chinese Olympic organising committee about the issues in early December and had given it a 15-day deadline to respond and 45 days to fix the problem, but received no reply.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.