Competitors at the Beijing Winter Olympics will face an “Orwellian surveillance state” in China and could put themselves in danger if they speak out in support of the Uyghur Muslims, human rights and athlete advocacy groups have said.
In a blunt message before the Games that begin on 4 February they also warned athletes not to expect the International Olympic Committee to protect them if they stood up for human rights or were critical of the Chinese authorities.
Yaqiu Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said the disappearance of the tennis player Peng Shuai 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. “People can be charged with picking quarrels or provoking trouble. There are all kinds of crimes that can be levelled at peaceful, critical comments. And in China the conviction rate is 99%.”
Dr Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said:
“One of the features of the 2008 Games was the authorities’ use of what was then considered high technology, but that pales in comparison to the Orwellian surveillance state.
“The authorities use across the country now where tools like AI and predictive policing, Big Data databases, extensive surveillance of social media platforms, keeps people from engaging in certain kinds of conversations. Anyone who’s travelling to the country for these games – journalists, athletes, coaches – needs to be aware that this kind of surveillance could affect them.”
Meanwhile, the US Nordic skier Noah Hoffman, who competed at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, has said the American team was telling its athletes not to talk about human rights for their own safety.
“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,” he said. “That makes me upset.
“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.”
That message was echoed by Rob Koehler, director general of the most high-profile international sports athlete advocate organisation, Global Athlete, who urged the IOC to announce it would support competitors who spoke in favour of human rights.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that we’re telling athletes to be quiet,” he said. “But the IOC has not come out proactively to indicate that it will protect them.
“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.”