China increases repression and censorship to silence any criticism during the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics begin this Friday in Beijing, under tight control by the Chinese regime REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Chinese authorities they have arrested activists in their homes and sent others to jail. Censors have shut down the social media accounts of prominent critics. Officials have warned Olympians that the protests could lead to prosecution.

As athletes, journalists and other participants arrive at the Winter Olympics starting on Friday, they are met with some of the most intense security measures ever imposed at an international sporting event. Many of them are precautions against covid-19, but others they reflect the Chinese government’s growing intolerance of dissent and criticism.

Hu Jia, a prominent human rights activist, said that Beijing police confined him to his apartment. In January, he took to Twitter to criticize state security agents for questioning, harassing and detaining critics ahead of the Winter Olympics. Since then, the police have visited him four times in eight days.

They said that if I didn’t keep quiet, my right to visit my mother could be affected.”, he said, adding that the authorities were determined to crack down on any open criticism of the Games on the Internet.

With the tightening of the authorities’ control over Chinese society, One of the main questions that arises is whether the participants in the Olympic Games, including the athletes, will be willing or able to speak out on issues that the government considers objectionable. Activists and human rights groups have accused the party of decimating civil liberties in Hong Kong, oppressing ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and censoring Peng Shuai, a top tennis player who has almost completely disappeared from the public eye. public hearing after accusing a senior Chinese leader of sexual assault.

A screen shows Xi Jinping inside the Olympic Tower, emblem of the 2022 winter games.
A screen shows Xi Jinping inside the Olympic Tower, emblem of the 2022 winter games.

Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer who was arrested and disbarred during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said he believed visiting athletes had “the responsibility to say something” about China’s increasing repression.

Beijing has made it clear that this type of behavior can have consequences, even as authorities have announced a welcome to arriving athletes.

Any behavior or speech that goes against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, is also subject to certain punishment.”, warned Yang Shu, deputy director of the organizing committee for the Beijing Olympics, during a recent call organized by the Chinese embassy in Washington.

The repression adds to an already restrictive environment. The Games will be held in three bubbles guarded by workers in hazard protection gear and isolated from surrounding cities and ordinary citizens. Those inside the bubbles will have to download a Chinese app that monitors their health and controls their movements between venues. The researchers claim that the software has encryption loopholes that expose users’ personal information.

The Olympic trials will be held before a limited audience of spectators selected by China. The organizers have installed fences to prevent people from entering venues such as the iconic Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, where the opening ceremony will be held.

Heavy-handed controls are a “way to demonstrate that the Chinese model of government works”said Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Under current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Beijing has resorted to harsh authoritarian tactics to stifle dissent and build national power. For the party, the Olympic Games are an emblem of the success of the Chinese political system, and Beijing is not afraid to crack down on those who seek to criticize it.

Although there will be few public in the stadiums and the athletes will move in strict bubbles due to the pandemic, Beijing hopes that the winter games will serve as a new propaganda coup for the regime.
Although there will be few public in the stadiums and the athletes will move in strict bubbles due to the pandemic, Beijing hopes that the winter games will serve as a new propaganda coup for the regime.

The sponsors, advertisers and contractors of the Olympics have warned their employees not to raise sensitive issues, so as not to jeopardize the companies’ access to the Chinese market. Some national teams have advised athletes not to carry their own phones, but instead use temporary ones, due to concerns about surveillance.

“What a world for us,” said Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Tibet Network, a coalition of Tibetan rights groups that helped organize multi-city protests calling for a boycott of the Olympics. He criticized the International Olympic Committee for not doing more to pressure China to guarantee freedom of expression and other values ​​written in the Olympic Charters. “It’s ridiculous,” he said.

The atmosphere contrasts with that of the 2008 Games, when there were hopes that the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian leanings would soften. Despite widespread censorship and arrests of activists, the authorities at the time opened up much of the country to journalists and even allocated space for three protest zones, although recording the protests proved impossible.

This time nothing of the sort has happened.

Now, Xi is showing that China has become powerful enough that he doesn’t have to worry about what people think., according to human rights lawyer Teng, who went into exile and is now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

Compared to 2008, the Chinese government has become increasingly powerful and aggressive. It seems that they care less about international pressure”he said in an interview, pointing to the brazenness of the warnings to foreign athletes.

They really want to preemptively silence athletes“, He said.

In all the country, authorities have moved to gag those who might speak out while the spotlights are on China. Human rights groups have noted the arrest or conviction of five high-level activists in recent weeksincluding Xie Yang, a lawyer who was arrested in January in the central city of Changsha for “inciting subversion” and “provoking fights and riots.”

Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer who had his law license revoked last month, said police officers had visited him in mid-January to warn him that China was entering his “Olympic security period”. Since then, he said, officials have called him regularly to check on his whereabouts.

Several activists and intellectuals said in interviews that the police have tried to silence them by shutting down their access to social media and the Internet.

Zhang Yihe, a Chinese author and historian, stated that Chinese censors banned her from using various features of the popular social networking app WeChat on January 8, in a measure that she believed related to the Olympics. Gao Yu, a veteran journalist and activist, said that her WeChat account was also suspended in January. More recently, Gao said that security officials demanded that he close his Twitter account.

The Chinese Communist Party “will control the speech of the people for the Olympics”, he said, adding that “not even the slightest criticism is allowed.”

Chinese authorities have already said athletes will be given mobile phone services that allow them to bypass extensive government censorship, which blocks sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. It is unclear whether the authorities will seek to punish Olympic participants for their Internet dissent, as they would Chinese citizens.

Mr. Teng said that China’s ability to brush aside criticism during such a major event is a sign of how powerful China has become since 2008.

“Beijing has the power – the economic and political power – to make global business silent, even complicit, in human rights violations,” he said.

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