The Olympian Task of Confronting China

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could be long remembered for the achievements of some of the world’s most accomplished athletes in a community of sportsmanlike fellowship. It could also be remembered as the occasion when western-style democracies—and especially the United States—mounted a wholly symbolic protest of the authoritarian Chinese government and its human rights violations. 

The “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics protested China’s well-known human rights abuses and especially the treatment of the country’s Uyghur minority, persecuted Chinese Muslims. Led by the United States and joined by Australia, Britain, and Canada, the boycott only included diplomats from these countries, later joined by Japanese diplomats, who would simply not travel to Beijing for the games. It was an empty gesture. The boycott did not include athletes from these nations. The games have gone on much to the satisfaction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and as a salve to the perhaps bruised feelings of China’s President Xi Jinping.

Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs remained in China’s brutal detention camps.

But while the 2022 Winter Olympics might well be remembered for the athletic competition, and remarked upon for the boycott, it should be noted as the occasion when the United States signaled its impotence to check the repression, aggression, and menace of a rising China. Before the games had even begun—before the Olympic torch was lit by a Chinese Uyghur athlete in a manifestly orchestrated stunt—American leadership conceded the field of play to Chinese state security. No less a person that the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, practically begged American athletes not to protest while in China. “I would say to our athletes: You’re there to compete,” she said. “Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”

Pelosi’s warning came on the heels of a mid-January 2022 notice from the U.S. Department of State that American citizens visiting China can be detained “for sending private electronic messages critical of the [Chinese] government,” and “may be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime.” It was a timely warning and, on its face, good advice for any tourists in a country that has laws that allow the police, state security agents, and assorted apparatchiks to arrest and detain—even without charge—anyone who speaks ill of China.

The advisories from Pelosi and the State Department were remarkable not for their alarm, but for the reasons American athletes needed to be muzzled. “I know there is the temptation on the part of some to speak out while they are there. I respect that,” Pelosi explained, “But I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.” She remarkably admitted that the United States cannot now protect its citizens from the menace of China’s threats to their well-being, their persons, and even their families—abroad and at home. And, in an equally stunning move, the U.S. State Department confessed that a United States passport is worthless in China; no U.S. citizen can be assured of their rights under the rule of law, of consular protection, or even access to legal counsel if they are detained in China without cause, without warrant, and without lawful charges.

The Long Reach

China’s Parliament, a rubber stamp for the desires of the Xi regime, is nothing if not fiercely nationalistic and reactionary. In 2020, in the face of growing support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Parliament bypassed that territory’s own Legislative Council to enact a new National Security Law. The law prohibits all activities, by anyone, that “endanger national security.” These are activities that either the Hong Kong or central Chinese government deem to be one of four main and vaguely defined offenses against the state: separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion. More worrisome is that the law applies not only to actions by residents of Hong Kong, but actions taken by anyone, anywhere, of any nationality. Just months after the law passed, for example, China issued a warrant for the arrest of an American citizen, Samuel Chu. Chu had threatened China’s national security by using the internet from his home in Los Angeles to promote the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Amnesty International has pointed out that the security law is “dangerously broad and vague . . . can mean virtually anything,” and can “apply to anyone on the planet.” The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations expressed deep-seated concerns that the law would inevitably lead to “discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement which could undermine human rights protection,” and politically motivated charges. Persons who are arrested and charged with national security crimes against China are tried in a criminal justice system with a 99 percent conviction rate and extremely limited or no press or public access. In China, even persons not charged with national security crimes—those persons merely suspected of crimes—can be held for “residential surveillance in a designated location,” outside the criminal detention system, without access to counsel, for as long as six months. Detainees held incommunicado in this way, bereft of legal counsel, and lost to family and friends, are plainly at risk of ill-treatment and torture. Journalists, lawyers, activists, and teachers have been subjected to this form of detention. So too have foreign citizens who run afoul of Chinese authorities.

Pelosi’s description of the Chinese government as “ruthless” hardly begins to describe the regime in Beijing.

The Surveillance State

The National Security Law also arms state security and investigators in China with extensive powers. Authorities can search properties; restrict or deny travel; freeze or confiscate assets; conduct covert operations; censor online content; and monitor, record, disrupt or deny personal communications. China’s growing New Social Classes Work Bureau targets the internet and iPhone use of private industry professionals, NGOs, and social media.  It’s no wonder that before the games, the FBI issued a Private Industry Notification (PIN) to alert Olympic participants of the “Potential for Malicious Cyber Activities to Disrupt the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympics.” The PIN raised the alarm on several threats including the risk of malware, phishing attacks, ransomware, and the theft of personal data and personally identifiable information.

In response, many Olympic participants left their personal phones and laptops behind and opted to carry disposable phones or “burners” instead. The US, British, Canadian, Swiss, Swedish, German, and Dutch Olympic committees told their teams, pointedly, not to take their personal electronic equipment to Beijing. Great Britain went so far as to offer its staff and athletes free burners. Olympic participants were also warned about the risks of using free wi-fi access provided by China during the games. That usage would open their phone calls, text, emails, files, photographs, apps, and internet use to a host of malicious actors, and to the Chinese state surveillance system. 

In short, there is no right to privacy in China.

Human Rights Watch has described the massive state surveillance system in China as “Orwellian.” Facial recognition software, telecommunications eavesdropping, thousands of cameras, and a legion of cyber watchers who constantly patrol the internet are only part of the massive monitoring conducted by China. A huge network of informants—both coerced and willing—have the ear of the police and state security services. A single text, an incautious internet search, discussion of a taboo topic, mention of a single word—genocide, torture, rape, starvation, Uyghur—or even a single remark on social media can instantly trigger an interview, an investigation, detention, arrest, or disappearance. That’s what happened to China’s tennis star and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai.

No citizens of any country should live in fear of Beijing. Even the citizens of China.

In November 2021, Peng used the Chinese social media website Weibo to say that Zhang Gaoli had forced her into a sexual relationship. The now 75-year old Zhang had previously served as China’s Vice Premier and as the top Chinese official who oversaw plans for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Peng’s allegation was quickly scrubbed from Weibo and then she simply disappeared. Her once active social media account went silent for weeks; the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai trended globally. With China thrust into the spotlight of the upcoming Winter Games, the Peng incident was a propaganda nightmare of Olympic proportions. It is not known what induced Peng to finally reappear and then awkwardly walk back her allegations in a video released by Chinese state media before the start of the Winter Games. But in China, coerced confessions, and videotaped scenes of glassy-eyed mea culpas are not uncommon.

Peng has not attended any event of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

US Response Overdue

If the U.S. State Department and leaders in Washington feel compelled to warn high-profile American athletes that they will not be safe in China, then no American is safe in China. Official restrictions on travel or an outright ban on travel to China is clearly overdue. In late January, the State Department officially posted a travel advisory for China, belatedly urging Americans to “reconsider” their travel plans. It was a Level Three warning (Level Four is “Do Not Travel”) with an accompanying country summary that is chillingly explicit:

The PRC government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and using exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law. The PRC government uses arbitrary detention and exit bans to: compel individuals to participate in PRC government investigations; pressure family members to return to the PRC from abroad; influence PRC authorities to resolve civil disputes in favor of PRC citizens; and gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.

The diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games led by the United States was, at best, a half measure, little better than a symbolic gesture of protest. A far more potent and meaningful action would have been a total boycott of the games. In 1980, the Carter Administration launched a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow in a bid to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Sixty-five countries refused to participate in the games; several countries that did compete refused to attend the opening ceremonies, some eschewed the use of their national anthems during medal ceremonies, and others refused to fly their nation’s flags. Even though the Soviet Union was denied an Olympic-sized stage for its propaganda, and lost billions of dollars, the boycott failed to deter Moscow’s aggression in Afghanistan. Ironically, the decade-long Afghan War is now cited by leading historians as one of the reasons that lead to the collapse of the Soviet state.

Beyond Boycott

In the face of Beijing’s extralegal policies and practices—arbitrary enforcement of law, wrongful detention, exit bans (hostage-taking really), denial of the right to counsel, abrogation of the due process of law, coerced confessions, sham criminal trials—an outright ban on travel to China would quickly demonstrate the consequences of purposefully violating international norms of behavior and the rule of law. Tourism accounted for nearly 11 percent of China’s GDP before the pandemic and is a significant source of foreign exchange. Moreover, Beijing continues to rely on the support of foreign experts that travel to China—engineers, technicians, industrialists, information specialists, contractors—to sustain its manufacturing base and the industrialized economy essential to its international exports and the main source of the nation’s revenue.

Even in China, money talks.

In equal measure, the U.S. needs to accelerate its reassessment of visa policies for all Chinese citizens. China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), handmaiden to the CCP, is a global network of agents and influencers active both inside China and abroad. The UFWD also provides cover for Chinese intelligence agents operating in the U.S. and other nations. A 2020 White House report described UFWD efforts to “target businesses, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and Federal officials in the United States and around the world, attempting to influence discourse and restrict external influence inside the PRC.” In December 2020, the State Department imposed visa restrictions on UFWD agents “who have engaged in the use or threat of physical violence, theft and release of private information, espionage, sabotage, or malicious interference in domestic political affairs, academic freedom, personal privacy, or business activity.”

While there is no evidence that U.S. Olympians in Beijing were specifically targeted by the UFWD, these high-profile athletes are valuable prospects as influencers in the press and on social media. The threat of the theft of private information and invasion of personal privacy was real enough to persuade western governments to urge team members and staff to leave their personal electronic devices behind when they traveled to Beijing. But the reach of the internet beyond the Great Firewall of China is global and immediate. The personal electronic devices of millions of Americans and American companies remain vulnerable to China’s state-sponsored surveillance, hacking, and manipulation. 

In July 2021, the U.S. Government formally accused China of a massive cyberattack on Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail server. The attack compromised tens of thousands of computers in the United States and worldwide allowing the hackers to access huge amounts of sensitive information and exposing the vulnerability of these networks to concentrated state-sponsored attacks. In a response that can best be described as a “severe finger-wagging,” the United States issued a joint statement in concert with Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand to criticize China’s involvement. NATO also piled on with a statement publicly calling out Beijing for cybercrimes.

But public condemnations do nothing to deter China.

In this instance, there is a compelling case for the United States to lead a concerted effort to enlist allies and partners in a broader legal effort to hold China—and Chinese leaders—accountable for these cybercrimes. That effort, composed as it must be of criminal indictments, prosecution, and economic sanctions, cannot succeed without a broad base of global support. The diplomatic boycott of the Games, even as it was unsuccessful in ending the human rights violations and genocidal practices of the Chinese state, may well have proved its worth as the first tangible evidence of the willingness of nations to stand together and stand up to Beijing.

The boycott, the alarms, and the warnings occasioned by the 2022 Winter Olympics may be the first sign of solidarity in opposition to Beijing even as China feigns compliance with the rule of law, makes a pretense of respect for human rights, and goes through the motions of adherence to international norms of behavior. It is also a clear sign that the United States must continue to lead by example and redefine relations with China that ensure the health, safety, well-being, and security of the American people. No Americans—at home or abroad in China or in other nations—should fear for their safety when calling on Beijing to be an honest partner in business, a good neighbor in the world community, a prudent steward of the environment, or when openly and honestly criticizing human rights violations and genocide.

No citizens of any country should live in fear of Beijing. Even the citizens of China.