Chinese authorities are pledging unrestricted internet access for foreign athletes at February's Beijing Winter Olympics, but rights advocates say athletes will likely be cautious about exploiting the rare crack in China's "Great Firewall."
China has been strengthening that firewall for more than a decade, blocking access to internationally popular foreign messaging apps, social media platforms, search engines and websites deemed threatening to national security.
In a statement emailed to VOA, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that China, as host of the 2022 Beijing Games, will honor a promise to allow athletes and accredited foreign media to have open internet service in the Olympic Village, competition and noncompetition venues, and contracted media hotels.
"Accredited participants will be able to access open internet service with their own devices via wired or Wi-Fi OTN (optical transport network) connection ... when purchasing Games SIM cards via the Beijing 2022 Rate Card program," the IOC said.
China has unblocked its Great Firewall for certain foreign visitors in certain venues on several occasions in the past decade.
While working for another network, a VOA Mandarin Service journalist who was reporting from Hangzhou, China, for the 2016 Group of 20 summit and from Beijing for the 2017 Belt and Road summit observed that Chinese authorities provided unrestricted Wi-Fi access at both venues to accredited foreign journalists.
Angeli Datt, senior China researcher at Washington-based human rights group Freedom House, told VOA that the Great Firewall was also unblocked for visitors participating in the 2015 World Athletics Championships, held at the same Beijing stadium that had hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.
During the 2008 Games, China's Great Firewall was much smaller, blocking foreign websites containing political content that Beijing deemed sensitive while allowing access to U.S. web portals Google and Yahoo, video-sharing site YouTube, and social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. In subsequent years, however, Chinese authorities proceeded to block all those web services plus Instagram, which was launched in 2010.
Datt emphasized the limited nature of China's pledge to make another one-off opening of its enlarged Great Firewall.
"The vast majority of likely Olympics spectators — Chinese nationals — will not have access to the free and open internet, and thus the IOC failed to use its leverage to make the Olympics a force for good for the people of China," she said.
As for foreign athletes, they will be allowed to use China's unrestricted internet service to express their views through digital and social media channels, under the IOC's Rule 50 Guidelines, which govern athletes' expression. But their online expression will be subject to the same IOC limits as for previous Games and will include requirements to respect "applicable laws" of the host nation and Olympic values prohibiting expression that "constitutes or signals discrimination, hatred, hostility or the potential for violence on any basis."
Some international athletes have already used the unrestricted Chinese Wi-Fi service at several test events held in October and November at Beijing Winter Olympics venues. American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, who competed at the Beijing bobsled time trials in late October, told VOA that her team used the Wi-Fi service to access WhatsApp, a messaging app that is owned by Meta (formerly Facebook) and that China has blocked since 2017.
Meyers Taylor said team coaches stationed at different points along the bobsled track recorded videos of athletes' runs and shared them via WhatsApp as a way of providing feedback to the athletes. "The Wi-Fi worked great, and the coaches were able to send us our videos, the same as we usually do," she said, speaking from a competition in Winterberg, Germany, last week.
Some athletes at the test events did not use the Chinese Wi-Fi service. Swiss ski crosser Alex Fiva, who competed in the Ski Cross World Cup in Beijing last month, told VOA he had not been informed that such a service would be available, so he installed a virtual private network app on his phone to connect to WhatsApp and Instagram through a server outside of China's Great Firewall.
Fiva, who was speaking last week from a competition in Val Thorens, France, said his VPN app worked smoothly in China. He said he used it to post an Instagram video of his practice run on a slope at the Genting Resort Secret Garden.
Other athletes may have a tougher time using VPNs during February's Games. Datt of Freedom House said China has increasingly cracked down on VPN usage and providers in the country since 2017, when, she said, it banned certain hotels from offering VPNs to foreign visitors.
Datt said athletes who decide to use the unrestricted Chinese Wi-Fi service will be taking a risk. "Being forced to use the networks provided by the Chinese organizers leaves the visitors susceptible to surveillance," she said.
Sophisticated digital surveillance
The Chinese government runs one of the world's most sophisticated digital surveillance networks, using its own technologies and those of private Chinese companies to monitor and censor the flow of information and opinion among its more than 1 billion citizens.
That surveillance extends to foreigners. The Reuters news agency reported last month that authorities in China's third most populous province, Henan, awarded a contract to a Chinese tech company in September to build a surveillance system specifically targeting foreign journalists and students.
Visiting athletes who expect to be surveilled while using the Beijing Games' unrestricted Wi-Fi service may also censor themselves: Quinn McKew, executive director of London-based rights group Article 19, told VOA that the athletes may refrain from posting any criticisms of China and its poor human rights record to avoid subjecting themselves and their corporate sponsors to Chinese wrath.
"A lot of top athletes are sponsored by U.S. brands that sponsor the Games as well, and those companies are incredibly concerned about maintaining their access to the Chinese market," McKew said. "They are concerned because of the aggressive moves that the Chinese have made when they feel that their national narrative is threatened by foreign individuals."
The general manager of the U.S. NBA team Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, triggered Beijing's wrath in October 2019 when he posted a tweet supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who were protesting the Chinese government's efforts to curb the city's freedoms. Chinese state-run network CCTV retaliated immediately by dropping regular season NBA games from its programming, and it has not resumed the broadcasts. U.S. sports news network ESPN estimated in September 2020 that the NBA had lost $200 million in the China market as a result.
Bobsledder Meyers Taylor said she expects athletes in Beijing to self-censor, but for other reasons, such as wanting to focus on their performance at a time when the Winter Olympics give their sporting disciplines much greater international visibility than usual.
"I would always expect there to be some self-censorship, because you want people to associate you with positivity and attract sponsors and donors for the next four years," she said.
Ski crosser Fiva said any Chinese digital surveillance of visiting athletes will not stop him from going online again in Beijing if he qualifies for the Games.
"You kind of know that they're watching you and probably listening to you," he said. "But my thinking is, if I don't have to hide something, I don't care if they read it, you know?"
Australian Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll, speaking to VOA from Sydney, said his organization urged athletes seeking to qualify for the Games to avoid pre-competition distractions that could put them under additional pressure while in Beijing.
"But if they want to tweet something, after competing, about human rights, whether it's about (China's treatment of ethnic minority) Uyghurs or whatever, they are free to do so," he said. "And the Chinese authorities — they have to live with that."
VOA Mandarin Service reporter Bo Gu contributed. Some information was provided by Reuters.