Jan 11, 2022 - World

China makes a show of opening up the internet for the Olympics

The 5 olympic rings as chat boxes

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Chinese government has promised Olympic athletes free access to social media platforms and other websites in the Olympic Village in Beijing, but internet use may still be fraught with restrictions and risks.

Why it matters: China's aim in temporarily opening its "great firewall" is simply to boost its global reputation ahead of the Games, not to champion an open internet, experts say. And they expect heavy surveillance of online activity to continue, even for visitors who are allowed to access sites that would otherwise be blocked.

  • "It's a way for China to easily spread positive narratives about the Beijing Olympics, in the midst of all of their human rights criticisms," said Kenton Thibaut, resident China Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

What they're saying: "They put on these airs as if they're allowing freedom of speech and movement, things that are synonymous with the liberal tradition of the Olympics, but in reality, all of it is carefully monitored," said Victor Cha, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What to watch: "Even though they allow access to social media, I don't think any athlete is going to tweet out something about Hong Kong or Taiwan," Cha said.

  • "They will work with the IOC to clamp down on any athletes that do say anything, and then they'll count on the Games to sort of capture everybody's imagination," he said.

The state of play: Chinese authorities have said Olympic participants and foreign media will have uncensored access to the internet through special SIM cards.

  • The U.S. Olympic organizing committee is warning athletes and officials that "performing mission critical business and personal communications will be difficult at best while operating in China," according to a technology advisory being shared with athletes and national sport organizing bodies.
  • "[I]t should be assumed that all data and communications in China can be monitored, compromised or blocked," the document states.

As for what athletes can say on the internet from Beijing, that's another matter.

  • The International Olympic Committee has touted athletes' right to free online speech as long as they don't violate local laws, but Chinese law gives authorities the flexibility to prohibit whatever online speech they deem to be illegal.
  • Chinese athletes will face intense scrutiny; Chinese authorities have arrested dozens of Chinese citizens for content they posted on foreign social media. But it's not clear how authorities view non-Chinese citizens posting freely on foreign websites.
  • Chinese authorities also frequently use denial of market access to punish speech by non-Chinese citizens.

Context: Numerous governments, including the U.S., have announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics games due to the Chinese government's ongoing genocide against the Uyghur population in the northwest region of Xinjiang.

  • Activists and rights groups have urged corporate sponsors to push Beijing on its Xinjiang policies and withdraw their sponsorship.
  • Chinese streaming platforms dropped Boston Celtics games after center Enes Kanter called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "brutal dictator" on social media in October 2021. Houston Rockets games also disappeared from the Chinese internet after general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

Also, just because athletes can get online in China, doesn't mean they shouldn't take precautions.

  • "If [athletes] are using their supplied Wi-Fi, they would just have to assume that everything they're doing is being monitored," Thibaut said.
  • Security experts recommend using a separate phone, a virtual private network, SIM cards not provided by China, and avoiding logging into services or sharing other sensitive information.

Flashback: At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, reporters discovered they could not access many websites, despite the IOC and Chinese officials' repeated promises of unfettered web access before the Games began. The IOC later admitted they had agreed to some web restrictions.

What they're saying: Some athletes anonymously told the New York Times in December that they are afraid to criticize the Chinese government publicly for fear of reprisal.

  • But some are speaking out anyway. “To be silent is to be complicit,” Clare Egan, a biathlete from Maine, told the Times.
  • U.S. pairs skater Timothy LeDuc said on Sunday that Uyghurs in China faced a "horrifying" situation. "I read somewhere the other day that it's the largest number of people held in internment and labor camps since World War II," LeDuc said.

The bottom line: "The Chinese government has the tools and capabilities to track and monitor what athletes are accessing and what they say, and they are not afraid to use coercive measures if they feel that's necessary," said Steven Feldstein, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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