Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 23 January 2022

 China has a message for Winter Olympic athletes: Shut up and ski

Residents walk past the Beijing Winter Olympics logo near the city's central business district on Jan. 21. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Opinion by the Editorial Board
January 22 at 9:00 pm Taiwan Time
The Winter Olympics open on Feb. 4 in Beijing and, seemingly in preparation for the big day, the host nation is trying to clear up any confusion about whether it might tolerate any hint of political protest by the athletes. The short answer: Don’t even think about it. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said Tuesday. That word “certain” — which could be read, in context, to mean either “inevitable” or “specific” — was vague but ominous.
With that, an Olympics already set to be played before near-empty venues so as to limit spread of coronavirus potentially got even grimmer. And the complicity of U.S. and other corporations sponsoring the show became that much harder to defend. There is certainly no shortage of reasons that an athlete of conscience might want to speak out: China is crushing the Uyghur Muslim minority, in a campaign officially designated “genocide” by the United States. China is at work stamping out free media in Hong Kong. And it subjects the Chinese population generally to Orwellian surveillance. The outside world still does not know what really happened to Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis pro who has been cast into a kind of political and personal limbo since she denounced a powerful Chinese official for sexual harassment two months ago. And China’s threat would seem to apply to issues beyond its borders — to a case in which an athlete from, say, Ukraine raised a fist against Russia’s threatened invasion.
To be sure, free speech at the Games is far from a core value of the International Olympic Committee, whose officials — including President Thomas Bach — helped China reassure the world that all was well with Ms. Peng. Here’s Rule 50 of the IOC charter: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” With its reference to notoriously repressive and arbitrary “Chinese laws and regulations,” the Chinese Olympic Committee official’s announcement seems to ratchet the IOC’s prohibition up a notch by asserting China’s own authority to decide what does and does not count as impermissible “propaganda.”
Small wonder athletes are being advised even by some human-rights activists to self-censor or use secure “burner” cellphones for their own protection. Chilling as such counsel may be, it seems only prudent, given how effective China has been in forcing even powerful corporations and individuals to retract or modify statements to which it objects. International media, too, will be operating under strict limitations.
The IOC has promised that, starting in 2024, it will take greater account of potential host nations’ human rights records; it’s an easy promise, since Western democracies have already been awarded the Games through 2028. Meanwhile, Mr. Bach continues to inveigh hypocritically against the “politicization” of the Games. In fact, the 2022 Winter Games shape up as yet another opportunity for China to further its paramount political goal: forcing the world to see it as the Communist Party prefers, not as it really is.

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