What’s keeping Olympic athletes from speaking out against China’s human rights record?

Unlike the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, international athletes competing at the Winter Olympics do have free internet access. But through 12 days of sports, no Olympic athlete has criticized the host country for what advocates call horrific human rights violations. Nick Schifrin reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unlike 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, international athletes competing at the Winter Olympics do have free access to the Internet.

    But through 12 days of sport, no Olympic athlete has criticized the host country for what advocates call a horrific human rights record.

    Nick Schifrin is back with more on what's keeping the athletes from speaking out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From skiers' dirty dancing to something strange in the neighborhood.

  • Woman:

    Olympics feels like a movie right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So many COVID tests, it felt like the empire swabs back.

  • Shaun White, U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist:

    They have this machine here that, like, knows who you are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For two weeks, 3,000 mostly millennial athletes descended on the Beijing Olympics, and posted online their lives…

  • Man:

    Silver medalist.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … their success, their relief, on social media sites that for the other 21 million people in Beijing, and 1.4 billion in China are blocked. Authorities drilled a small hole for athletes in China's great Internet firewall shortly after winning the Games.

  • Zhang Jiandong, Executive Vice President, Beijing 2022 Organizing committee (through translator:

    During the 2022 Winter Games, we will comprehensively open access to the Internet for all customers, including at the competition venues, where athletes stay, and other areas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But for athletes, it's access with Chinese characteristics, as Olympics Committee Deputy Director Yang Shu warned last month through an interpreter.

    Yang Shu, Deputy Director, Beijing 2022 International Relations Department (through translator): Any behavior or speeches that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulation, are also subjected to certain punishment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beijing has long used domestic laws to punish its critics. And that history has pushed athletes to stay silent.

  • Deedra Irwin, U.S. Olympic Athlete:

    We were given, like, a course, very brief course, about just the difference of our laws and then the laws of the country we're going to. The freedom of speech thing is a little harsher in China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joanne Firesteel Reid and Deedra Irwin are biathletes, a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting. We interviewed them before the Games.

  • Deedra Irwin:

    Personally, it's not a place to, like, make huge statements and try to criticize. You need to be sensitive about when you bring stuff up and why you're bringing it up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the night of the Opening Ceremonies, Chinese authorities dragged off reporter Sjoerd den Daas, who later said the police had stopped him multiple times.

    And after winning gold in this year's luge, German Natalie Geisenberger, a previous critic of Beijing's human rights, self-censored.

  • Natalie Geisenberger, German Olympic Athlete (through translator):

    You have to be careful when you say what, and where you say it, and I think many are feeling this way. Here on location, I think it's better not to say too much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Irwin and Reid said Team USA advised, leave electronics at home.

  • Deedra Irwin:

    Everybody is telling us to bring burner phones and burner laptops and hide all of our personal data.

  • Ron Deibert, Director, Citizen Lab:

    There's the threat that the government may be eavesdropping on you, and they can do that in all sorts of ways, from the cell network to the Wi-Fi in the hotel, the fact that they can access data from platforms directly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ron Deibert is the founder and director of Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity research group. Last month, Citizen Lab researchers found holes in My 2022, the Chinese app required for all athletes that collects medical and travel history, and passports.

  • Ron Deibert:

    The encryption that was used to protect the traffic that's going from the application out to the Internet was done in a way that left open the possibility of interception of any content.

    What we have seen empirically through reverse-engineering and testing literally thousands of Chinese-based mobile applications is that they build into their platforms some kind of censorship, some kind of surveillance, and, sometimes, the coding is done in a sloppy fashion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Initially, Beijing and the International Olympics Committee criticized Citizen Lab's research and defended the app. But then the app's developers fixed the bugs themselves.

    Does that mean the athletes who are in China today participating in the Olympics and their data are safe?

  • Ron Deibert:

    No, it doesn't.

    You have to assume going into this environment that there are so many potential points of surveillance. There is a very broad national cybersecurity law in China that gives the authorities permission to access user data from technology platforms, largely without a warrant and without any discretion. They're required to turn that information over.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    While it censors content at home, Beijing tries to use influencers to spread propaganda abroad. This Israeli visited cotton farms in Xinjiang, where the U.S. says China detained more than one million Uyghurs and forces them to work.

  • Man:

    It's totally normal here. People are nice, doing their job, living their life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And social media analysts say Beijing uses spam to camouflage the human rights realities. So-called spamouflage pumps out thousands of messages targeting Chinese critics, including those who called for Olympics boycotts.

    As the spokesperson for China's Olympic committee, BOCOG, said yesterday:

    Yan Jiarong, Beijing 2022 Spokesperson (through translator): The so-called issue of forced labor in Xinjiang is a lie fabricated by some forces with ulterior motives. We oppose any behavior that politicizes sports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, IOC President Thomas Bach backed Beijing up.

  • Thomas Bach, President, International Olympic Committee:

    Both organizations, BOCOG and the IOC, have restated their unequivocal commitment to remain politically neutral.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which means, once the Olympics ends, the small crack in the great firewall will close again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

Listen to this Segment