As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics comes to a close, human rights activists, politicians, and scholars of authoritarian influence find themselves faced with lingering questions. Was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) successful in leveraging the Games to burnish its image and “discourse power” on the global stage? Did a series of diplomatic boycotts prompted by Chinese authorities’ human rights abuses make a difference? After a successfully executed Games, will China be further emboldened to extend its surveillance and censorship regime beyond its borders? To help bring potential answers to these questions into context, we’re featuring some of the most relevant reporting and analysis published by news outlets and research institutions throughout the duration of the Olympic Games.
1. Human Rights: ADVOCATES AND SURVIVORS SPEAK OUT ON CHINA’S EXPLOITATION OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES (PBS NewsHour)
The Winter Olympics were held, again, in an authoritarian state, raising questions for human rights groups and many American corporations. PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin reported on what advocates said about China’s exploitation of the Games, as it tried to project the carefully crafted image its leader wants the world to see.
The Chinese government has a history of forcing people to make all sorts of propaganda videos and covering up what they have been doing to the people. — Jewher Ilham, Uyghur Activist
2. Human Rights and Foreign Relations: WHAT THE BEIJING GAMES MEAN FOR CHINA’S GLOBAL IMAGE (ChinaFile)
Fourteen years after China first hosted the Olympics, an event often described as a pivotal moment for the country’s political trajectory, Beijing hosted the Games again. This time, they occurred during a surging pandemic, a new wave of lockdowns, multiple diplomatic boycotts, and international alarm at the disappearance of one of the country’s top athletes. ChinaFile asked leading China experts, including NED senior program officer Akram Keram, what the Beijing Games meant this year and to what extent they marked a significant juncture in China’s relations with the world.
As Beijing’s abuses deepen and as Xi Jinping seeks to assert the Chinese government’s power and influence beyond the country’s borders, some governments have demonstrated that they recognize the Chinese Communist Party as an ambitious force aspiring to remake the world in a manner more friendly to itself—and less friendly to human rights and democracy. — Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch
3. Foreign Relations: THE DEBATE OVER BOYCOTTING THE 2022 BEIJING OLYMPICS (Council on Foreign Relations)
Why boycott the Beijing Olympics? What could boycotts look like? Would China retaliate? Lindsay Maizland considered these questions ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as human rights groups and some politicians in Western nations pressured countries to boycott the Games over the CCP’s human rights abuses.
Boycotts have impacts in a variety of ways that are almost always indirect, almost always over a relatively extended period of time, and sometimes counterproductive. — David Black, Dalhousie University
4. Sportswashing: HOW AUTHORITARIANS USE PRESTIGIOUS SPORTING EVENTS TO POLISH THEIR PUBLIC IMAGE (the Guardian)
Over the course of a 12-month period, countries such as China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom have been criticized for human rights violations, will use prestigious sports events to polish their public image on an international stage. While “sportswashing” has long been a popular tactic, 2022 is a particularly concerning year because both the Olympic Games in China and the World Cup in Qatar—the two most-watched sporting events in the world—are being hosted in countries with markedly oppressive regimes.
This strategy has proven to be remarkably effective in overhauling these states’ public images and legitimizing their regimes. — Karim Zidan, the Guardian
5. Information Controls: RESTRICTIONS TO WATCH FOR AND IMPLICATIONS FOR ATHLETES, JOURNALISTS, AND THE CHINESE PUBLIC (The Diplomat)
China analyst Sarah Cook identified five types of potential restrictions before, during, and after the Olympic Games: surveillance of athletes and journalists, reprisals for political speech and independent reporting, rapid censorship of scandals, stonewalling foreign journalists, and repercussions after the closing ceremony.
China’s leaders might feel compelled to quickly suppress any number of unfavorable news stories, such as revelations that Olympic attire was produced with Uyghur forced labor, athlete complaints about an Olympic venue, or unsportsmanlike conduct by a favored Chinese athlete. — Sarah Cook, Freedom House
Bonus: Beijing’s expanding efforts to shape global narratives go beyond simply “telling China’s story.” Sarah Cook documented how the CCP leverages propaganda, censorship, and influence over key nodes in the information flow to shape media content around the world, and how nongovernmental actors are countering this influence while protecting democratic institutions. Read the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ report in English or Spanish.
6. Information Controls: PRO-CHINA TWITTER ACCOUNTS FLOOD HASHTAG CRITICAL OF BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS (Wall Street Journal)
Automated pro-China accounts flooded Twitter with spam-like tweets using #GenocideGames. The hashtag had initially been used by activists and Western lawmakers to raise awareness about human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Researchers said the tactic, known as hashtag flooding, was used to dilute the hashtag’s power to galvanize criticism of the Winter Olympics host nation.
The Chinese propaganda apparatus has been very focused on defending their image regarding the treatment of the Uyghur, while also promoting the Olympics. This hashtag is at the nexus of those two things. — Darren Linvill, Clemson University
7. Censorship and Free Speech: COMPETITION MEETS COVID AND CONTROVERSY AT THE OLYMPIC GAMES (Politico via Twitter Spaces)
During a wide-ranging Twitter Spaces conversation hosted by Politico ahead of the Opening Ceremony, a panel of experts weighed in on Beijing’s unprecedented, closed loop covid mitigation system, international concern over China’s human rights record, threats to the safety and data privacy of competing athletes, and the perceived deaf ear of the International Olympic Committee and the Games’ corporate sponsors to these concerns.
The idea that the Games are apolitical is laughable. And yet that same justification is used to silence athletes [and] put in place rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter, which says that any political demonstration on the field of play or on the podium will be punished by the International Olympic Committee. [This] is used to facilitate the use . . . of athletes as pawns because if athletes can’t speak up, they’re easier to use in whatever way you find advantageous. — Noah Hoffman, Global Athlete
Bonus: For China, a Uyghur lighting the Olympic cauldron was a feel-good moment of ethnic unity. But to human rights activists and Western critics, it looked like Beijing was using an athlete (who later avoided foreign media) in a calculated, provocative fashion to whitewash its suppression of Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang. Read more in the New York Times.
8. Censorship and Free Speech: AUTHORITARIANS PRESSURE FOREIGN COMPANIES TO PARROT THEIR PREFERRED NARRATIVES (NED’s Power 3.0 Blog)
The extraordinary foreign commercial relationships that open societies have forged with authoritarian countries have enabled new channels for authoritarian control to limit expression in democratic societies. Facing pressure from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian regimes that leverage both political and economic incentives to induce censorship, private sector firms (including some sponsors of the Olympic Games) have walked back statements, altered their content, or altogether avoided topics that could be considered politically sensitive.
For foreign companies facing the prospects of official reprimand, legal troubles, consumer backlash, and financial risk, compliance with authoritarian censorship demands can sometimes outweigh the reputational benefits of enabling free speech and generating products that facilitate creative expression. — Rachelle Faust, International Forum for Democratic Studies
9. Technology and Surveillance: BEIJING LEVERAGES THE OLYMPICS TO EXPERIMENT WITH NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND HONE WELL-TESTED MEASURES OF CONTROL (Washington Post)
There are many overlapping parts of China’s security state, from media censorship and monitoring of online discussion to surveillance and control of dissident figures. China also employs methods of voice and image analysis developed by technology firms and a massive network of low-level volunteer informants on the lookout for suspicious or criminal activity. How much of China’s surveillance apparatus would be targeted at Olympic athletes was hard to know. But the country’s intensifying domestic controls, brazen arrests of foreign nationals, and harassment of activists and journalists gave Western governments reason for concern.
The national security prism is now inescapable, especially for the lengthening list of groups—Uyghurs, Tibetans, rights lawyers, feminists and foreign journalists, to name a few—considered inherently a danger to party control. — Christian Shepherd, Washington Post
Bonus: China isn’t just upgrading its domestic surveillance state; it’s exporting the technologies it uses to monitor its populace and control society at home. Samantha Hoffman describes how the PRC leverages emerging technologies and an active role in international standards-setting bodies to undercut democracies’ stability and legitimacy while expanding its own influence. Read the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ report in English and Spanish.
10. Technology and Surveillance: AN ANALYSIS OF THE MY2022 OLYMPICS APP (Citizen Lab)
MY2022 (冬奥通) is a multi-purpose app required to be installed by all attendees to the 2022 Olympic Games, including audience members, members of the press, and athletes. An analysis of the app conducted by the Citizen Lab found security deficits that potentially violated not only Google’s Unwanted Software Policy and Apple’s App Store guidelines, but also China’s own laws and national standards pertaining to privacy protection. MY2022 also included features allowing users to report “politically sensitive content” and a censorship keyword list that, while inactive at the time of the analysis, targeted a variety of political topics such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
The knee-jerk reactions against Chinese apps and suspicions of their censorship and surveillance capacities are to a large extent warranted as there exists extensive documentation of security flaws, privacy violations, and information controls on apps operated in China and internationally-facing apps developed by Chinese companies. — Jeffrey Knockel, Citizen Lab