Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 20 January 2022

 The Winter Games in China: Lonelier, quieter, spookier

Surveillance cameras behind a perimeter fence set up for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. (Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg News)
Opinion by James Hohmann
January 20 at 6:47 am Taiwan Time
China is requiring anyone attending the Winter Olympics to download an app on their cellphone that will allow the surveillance state to track their movements. Ostensibly to help with coronavirus contact tracing, the software also includes glaring encryption flaws that make it easier for authorities to snoop on athletes in attendance as well as a special file with 2,442 keywords that could trigger the nation’s formidable censorship apparatus.
The Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity outfit at the University of Toronto, flagged these and other features of the Chinese welcome mat in a Tuesday report. Such hidden lists of “illegal words” are common in Chinese apps and a reminder of the hypersensitivity of the Beijing regime to even the slightest criticism. It could make for some unpleasant moments at the XXIV Winter Games. But, ultimately, this quest to squelch criticism is China’s Achilles’ heel.
The banned terms on the Olympic app include unwelcome references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong. But the list also highlights more obscure sore spots, such as infighting between ex-leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. There’s also a feature that allows users to report “politically sensitive” content they see coming from others. Yes, the technology encourages reporting on the banned or discouraged speech of others.
The Winter Games were already setting up to be a subdued affair when news of this app was made public. China announced this week, after a single case of omicron was reported in Beijing, that domestic spectators will not be allowed to attend Olympic events, which run from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20. This follows the announcement last fall that no foreigners would be permitted into the country unless they were participating. Athletes and journalists will be forbidden from ever leaving a tight bubble.
Adding a deeper chill to the already frigid air, a leader of the Beijing Organizing Committee warned during a Tuesday news conference that the more than 3,000 foreign athletes entering the country will be “subject to certain punishment” if they speak up for human rights while visiting China. The official, Yang Shu, declined to specify what the maximum punishment could be but said that “dedicated departments” will make that evaluation depending on the infraction.
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public view in November after she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex suggests some of those departments have been busy of late. Human Rights Watch, a normally fearless watchdog group, advised athletes during a seminar on Tuesday not to use their voices until they return home safely. Researchers with the group explained that nebulous Chinese laws allow visitors to be charged for ill-defined crimes such as “provoking trouble” or “picking quarrels.”
With at least 127 reporters currently detained, China is also the world’s biggest captor of journalists. As part of its deal to host the 2022 Games, the organizing committee promised attendees will have unfettered access to the Internet. But organizers said the same thing before the 2008 Games in Beijing, and access was nonetheless limited.
Much as Adolf Hitler saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda coup for the Nazis, President Xi Jinping likely envisions next month as a valuable showcase for an ascendant China. He hopes to use the glow of the Olympics to help secure a precedent-breaking third term at the party congress this fall.
China isn’t just monitoring visitors, athletes and dissidents. The regime brooks no dissent. It can’t even take a joke. Xi has a passing resemblance to Winnie the Pooh, for instance, so depictions of A.A. Milne’s storied “bear of very little brain” are forbidden.
That’s easy to laugh about, but it speaks to the extraordinary limits on speech in the People’s Republic. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon got himself into trouble in November when he quipped during a speech in Boston that both his bank and the Chinese Communist Party are celebrating their 100th birthday. “And I’ll make you a bet we last longer,” he said.
JPMorgan Chase has significant exposure in China, so Dimon quickly apologized. But I would wager that Dimon’s initial comment was correct: JPMorgan Chase will probably outlast the CCP. Beijing allows no real marketplace of ideas, and that’s a key ingredient for national atrophy and decline.
Even the snow will be fake at these Olympics. Because the Games are being held in China’s arid north, athletes will compete almost entirely on man-made flakes. The mountain hosting the Alpine skiing event in Yanqing, alone, will require 1.2 million cubic meters of snow.
The ancient Olympic motto is “faster, higher, stronger.” A more apt slogan for these games might be lonelier, quieter, spookier.

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