Olympic athletes' self-censoring won't stop after return from China: human rights experts

One Chinese government official said that any Olympic athlete who speaks out against China would be subject to 'certain punishment'

Olympic athletes' self-censorship of their criticism of the Chinese government does not stop when they leave the country, multiple human right experts say, as athletes rely on lucrative corporate sponsorship deals with companies that stand to lose money if athletes criticize the Chinese Communist Party.

During a news conference in January, one Chinese government official said any speech against Chinese "laws and regulations" during the Olympic Games in Beijing is subject to "certain punishment."

"Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment," Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC), said.

But even after the closing ceremonies end in Beijing and athletes leave the water's edge to return to the United States, those athletes hope to land sponsorships with major corporations, many of which conduct business in China.

Several human rights experts believe those same corporations could force athletes to self-censor their views on China's human rights abuses in the interest of money.



The People's Republic of China marches into the National Stadium Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing, China.  (Annice Lyn/Getty Images / Getty Images)

For example, Airbnb, Alibaba Group, Allianz, Coca Cola, Samsung and more are all sponsors of Team USA, and all conduct business in China. The companies are also part of the Olympic Partner Programme, which is the "highest level of Olympic partnership.

Teng Biao, a human rights activist and visiting professor at the University of Chicago, told Fox News Digital it's possible athletes will self-censor their speech to protect sponsorships with corporations who may conduct business in China and noted there have been examples of retaliation by the Chinese government in the past.

"The Chinese government actually frequently uses economic coercion to achieve their political goals," Biao said.

Biao said that athletes who affiliate with companies with close ties to China or the Chinese market put themselves in the "position to choose between principle and the profit."

Despite the risks, Biao said that Olympic athletes have a "moral responsibility" to speak up against the Chinese government at the Olympic Games because it is using the event as a "propaganda tool."

He called the event the "genocide games," and said that China is hosting the Olympic Games as a way to "whitewash the crimes against humanity and genocide," giving examples such as the human rights violations in Hong Kong and the Uyghur population.

Biao said it's unlikely the Chinese government would detain or torture an Olympic athlete for criticizing the government, although he noted that athletes could be expelled from the country.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Fox News Digital that athletes who have sponsorships with China might self-censor their criticism of the Chinese government in fear of possible retaliation.


Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, president of China, is seen on the big screen during the opening ceremony Feb. 4, 2022 in Beijing, China.  (Annice Lyn/Getty Images)

"The Chinese government has been leveraging the economic side of things, market access to pressure companies to toe party lines," Wang said. "If you want your economic interests to be protected, you want to stay away from criticizing the government."

Wang also said that the Chinese government is "leveraging the economic side of things for its own political purposes."

She added that athletes will "absolutely" self-censor their speech in China to avoid possible actions against them by the government.


Beijing winter olympics

A woman poses for a picture in front of Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon, mascots of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, hours before the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Feb. 4, 2022. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Wang said that the International Olympic Committee should not have given the Winter Olympic Games to China because it's putting athletes in a dangerous situation and said it also serves as a way to legitimize the policies in China.

"There are also a lot of, you know, government leaders, world leaders, including the head of the [United Nations], delivering a speech during the opening ceremony," Wang said. "It's a way to show that, you know, all these national dignitaries are coming here to congratulate the opening of the games. Of course, it's using the game to legitimize its policies. There's no doubt about that." 

Fox News' Peter Aitken contributed to this report