China threatens international Olympic athletes with 'punishment' for free speech

"Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment," Yang said.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

Ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics which are set to begin in two weeks, a member of China's Olympics organizing committee warned foreign athletes that they may face punishment for any speech that violates Chinese law.

"Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I'm sure will be protected," said Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, in a news conference on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.

"Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment," Yang said.

Yang said "dedicated departments" will evaluate punishment for athletes who violate the IOC political protest ban.

"I think for the athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, they should follow the spirit and requirements provided by the Olympic Charter," he said. "The politicization of sports is one of the things opposed by the Olympic Charter."

This led UN Watch to call for a boycott of the Olympic Games.

China's rules go further than those established by the International Olympic Committee. Rule 50 of the IOC charter forbids "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at Olympic venues, and last summer during the Tokyo Olympic Games, the IOC stated that athletes who staged protests there would be punished.

Yang said on Tuesday that speech, a category not covered by the IOC charter rule, could be subject to punishment, citing Chinese law, which is far more restrictive than many other countries around the world.

The warning comes amidst discussions among Western nations about expected surveillance and political restrictions at the fast approaching games.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch warned athletes traveling to China next month about speaking up on human rights issues within the country for their own safety, according to Reuters.

China is known to routinely throw critics of the government in prison for political protests or comments posted on social media.

"While it's unlikely Beijing would risk international ire to severely punish an athlete at the Olympics for speech, Yang declined to answer on Tuesday what the maximum punishment could be for political demonstration at the Games," The Washington Post reported.

With China's human-rights record coming under scrutiny over the past few months, the United States and several other countries have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Olympic event against China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang."


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