Pall hangs over China’s Games

Pall hangs over China’s Games

The Beijing Winter Olympics begin on Feb 4 — and not without controversy given they are taking place as Beijing wrestles with human rights issues.

Despite sending their athletes to compete in Beijing, Western countries including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and most recently Denmark are simultaneously conducting diplomatic boycotts in protest of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang.

Beijing has been rebuked by Western countries and the United Nations for its assimilation policy and treatment of Uyghurs, ethnic Muslims, in the autonomous region.

UN rights experts voiced concerns regarding one million Uyghurs having been sent to “concentration camps”. The Chinese regime disputes the allegation, saying the camps are “re-education centres”.

External narratives of China’s assimilation policy in Xinjiang nonetheless amount to a PR headache for the host country. Western-style democratic nations such as the US, UK and France have used emotive terms to describe what has been occurring in Xinjiang such as “crimes against humanity” and even “genocide”. In return, Beijing describes these narratives as a “lie of the century”.

Xinjiang, however, is but one human rights issue besetting China. There’s also Tibet, the steamrolling of freedoms in Hong Kong, not to mention the continued persecution of artists, lawyers and journalists.

To deal with PR problems, the host nation is going to great lengths to control the narrative during the Winter Games. Unsurprisingly, China has imposed stringent Covid-related measures.

These, however, coincide with equally stringent and strident responses to anything hinting of protest pertaining to human rights issues. Yang Shu, the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee, said recently that any athlete’s behaviour or speech deemed to go against the Olympic spirit or Chinese laws will be subject to punishment.

Athletes attending the Games have been warned against speaking up on human rights issues.

Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch (HRW) was quoted this month in a BBC report describing Winter Olympics 2022 as unprecedented in the modern Olympic era.

She said that “it is a tragedy that athletes have to weigh their personal safety and security while also having to compete at the highest level”.

Like Chinese citizens, foreign athletes are required to download tracing apps allowing the government to acquire personal data ostensibly as part of Covid preventive measures.

Not looking to tempt fate, several governments have advised athletes to use burner phones when in China so as to avoid surveillance-related issues.

Citizen Lab, a Canada-based internet watchdog, last week warned athletes and all international attendees of the event that any smartphone app that Chinese authorities require them to download will have a security flaw, leaving users open to data breaches.

Concern among athletes has been growing apace since November, when Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai claimed that a high-level member of the Chinese Communist Party had coerced her into sex.

The man she made the allegations against is former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who CNN described as “the face of China’s organising efforts ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics”.

After the online accusations, Peng disappeared from public view for three weeks and any mention of her was scrubbed from China’s not-so-free internet.

Concern for her plight was voiced by tennis sporting bodies, rights groups and other tennis players such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.

Peng withdrew her claims in an interview with state-run Singapore media last month, which followed similar reports made earlier via Chinese state-run media channels. In a more recent development, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said its officials will meet the 36-year-old some time during the Games.

It is worth mentioning that China is the first nation in the world to host both Summer (in 2008) and Winter Olympic Games. The distinction mirrors the Middle Kingdom’s perception of itself as an exceptional nation.

In 2008, China hosting of the Summer Olympic Games was under the slogan “One World One Dream”. Those games showed the Middle Kingdom reaching out to the world with confidence and an open attitude.

Given today’s news of rigid security and surveillance, the Winter Games, despite the optimistic motto “Together for a Shared Future”, looks to be a warning sign that China is again turning inward and stepping back to stay behind its Great Wall.