By Lindell Lucy
The US State Department’s travel advisory for China is currently at Level 3, which means that Americans are advised to “avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security.” The main reason provided for China’s Level 3 status is not the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather, “arbitrary enforcement of local laws.”
The advisory explains that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government may carry out “arbitrary and wrongful detentions” and impose “exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries.” Targeted individuals may be deprived of “access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime” and “may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention without due process of law.” Among other reasons, the PRC government may detain individuals in order to “gain bargaining leverage over foreign governments.”
The case of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, is a prime example of China’s hostage diplomacy. The “two Michaels” have been unjustly detained since December 2018, apparently in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Anyone who is considering attending the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, whether as an athlete or a spectator, should be fully aware of the associated risks.
Human rights groups and prominent political leaders around the world have been calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics for more than a year. They have mostly supported their position with moral reasoning rather than practical concerns about the safety of athletes. They argue that participating in the Beijing Olympics is like participating in a propaganda spectacle intended to glorify the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) while it actively carries out industrial scale human rights violations in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Boycott proponents view this as tantamount to being complicit in the CCP’s persecution of pro-democracy Hongkongers, Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and various other groups who have been resistant to the CCP’s totalitarian rule.
In spite of compelling moral arguments, many people still do not support a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because they view it as unfair to athletes, whose careers could be harmed as a result. A proposed compromise solution is to postpone the 2022 Winter Games and move them to another location. However, the International Olympic Committee refuses to seriously entertain this idea.
Consequently, athletes have been put in an uncomfortable position. American Olympic gold medallist, Mikaela Shiffrin, told CNN that she feels forced to choose between her morals and her job. She implied that Beijing wasn’t a “fitting” place to hold the Olympics and that accusations of human rights abuses against the Uighurs were supported by “legitimate proof.”
Because Mikaela Shiffrin expressed her views on television, her morals aren’t the only thing hanging in the balance. When deciding whether to go to the Beijing Olympics, she will also need to consider her safety.
The US State Department’s travel advisory for China warns that the national security law that the PRC government imposed on Hong Kong last summer “covers offenses committed by non-Hong Kong residents or organizations outside of Hong Kong, which could subject U.S. citizens who have been publicly critical of the PRC to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution.” In other words, someone like Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin.
The Canadian government’s Hong Kong travel advisory gives a similar warning: “Activities considered as national security violations are broadly and vaguely defined. They could include activities that are not considered illegal in Canada and that occurred outside of Hong Kong. You risk being arbitrarily detained on national security grounds, even while you are transiting through Hong Kong. You could be subject to transfer to mainland China for prosecution. Penalties are severe and include life imprisonment.”
The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs travel advisory for Hong Kong notes, “The full extent of this law and how it is applied is not yet clear, but charges under this legislation can be applied to activities, including statements made on social media, undertaken while outside of Hong Kong.”
The PRC government created the national security law for implementation in Hong Kong, but some legal experts worry that individuals could be detained in the mainland for alleged violations. George Washington University law professor, Donald Clarke, advises, “If you have possibly violated the [Hong Kong National Security Law] but no mainland law, I would still stay out of the mainland; perhaps Hong Kong could request that the mainland extradite you to Hong Kong.”
Because the coronavirus halted international travel, no one knows how vigorously the new national security law will be enforced against foreign visitors to China. Athletes attending the Beijing 2022 Olympics will be among the first to find out.
A legal landmine that athletes should be aware of, since some of them have probably already stepped on it, is the CCP’s “one China” policy. According to a statement issued by the Hong Kong police, it is now a crime to express support for Taiwan’s independence. (Perversely, it is legal and even viewed as “patriotic” to advocate for a violent military invasion of peaceful Taiwan.)
Taiwan is not and has never been part of the PRC. As Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen says, Taiwan is an independent country.
Recently, Hollywood actor and 16-time WWE wrestling champion, John Cena, referred to Taiwan as a country, inadvertently sparking an uproar in China. Cena posted a groveling public apology, presumably out of fear that his latest movie, Fast and Furious 9, would get banned or boycotted in China, leading to devastating financial losses. In the wake of Cena’s apology, he was ruthlessly criticized and mocked outside of China, causing the hashtag, #TaiwanIsACountry, to go viral on Twitter.
A group of scholars analyzed the tweets and published their findings in E-International Relations. According to the study, “Many politicians, celebrities, and activists, including U.S. Congressmen Steve King (IA-R), entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, software engineer-activist Tracy Chou, hedge fund CEO Kyle Bass, and Chinese-American Republican politician Solomon Yue, endorsed this movement. This movement quickly spread beyond [America] and trended worldwide. For example, Filipino politician Kim Atienza, Estonia congressman Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Paraguayan actress Milva Gauto, all of whom have more than 100,000 followers, tweeted #TaiwanIsACountry.” From May 25 to May 29, the hashtag #TaiwanIsACountry was tweeted nearly 15,000 times.
Every single one of those tweets was a blatant violation of the Hong Kong National Security Law. Anyone who tweeted or re-tweeted the hashtag, including Olympic athletes, could face a heightened risk of arrest if visiting China.
Unsurprisingly, #TaiwanIsACountry isn’t the only dangerous tweet that has gone viral. In 2019, amidst massive pro-democracy protests and before the Hong Kong National Security Law was imposed, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image that said, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In response, the Chinese consulate in Houston lodged an official complaint, the Chinese Basketball Association and several Chinese companies cut ties with the Rockets, and all NBA games were temporarily blacked out in China, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.
At the moment, nearly all of Hong Kong’s well-known pro-democracy activists are either in prison or have been driven into exile. Expressing solidarity with them, or expressing support for future pro-democracy movements, would almost certainly be considered a violation of the national security law. Authorities have warned that chanting or displaying the popular protest slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” is now illegal. Tweeting anything that expresses a similar sentiment, including what Daryl Morey tweeted, could possibly be regarded as “endangering national security.”
The takeaway point for Olympians is that, because of the Hong Kong National Security Law, they could possibly be arrested in Beijing for speaking out in their home countries long before they even qualified for the Winter Olympics.
It would be imprudent to assume that Chinese authorities aren’t already combing through the social media posts and televised interviews of foreign Olympic athletes, looking for anything that could be used against them or their home countries, especially if they protest during the Olympics.
The inconvenient truth is that the safety of Olympic athletes cannot be guaranteed in Beijing next year. At best, the risk of getting jailed can be reduced by asking athletes to mute their conscience and forfeit their freedom of speech, at least until the Winter Olympics are finished. If athletes are not willing to stay silent, they need to seriously contemplate whether they should support the Beijing 2022 boycott movement.
Lindell Lucy has a B.A. in Philosophy from Stanford University and is currently studying international relations as a master’s student at the Harvard Extension School. He teaches high school in Tokyo and started the petition “Let Taiwan Be Taiwan at the Tokyo Olympics.” After partnering with Taiwan2020Tokyo.org, the petition now has over 132,000 supporters.
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