China has warned foreign athletes they could be punished for speaking “against the Olympic spirit” following a similar warning from human rights activists who worry about civil liberties during the games.

Yang Shu, deputy director general for international relations of the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC), made it clear that “any expression in line with the Olympic spirit will, I am sure, be protected.”

“Any behavior or speech contrary to the Olympic spirit, especially Chinese laws and regulations, is also subject to certain penalties,” Yang said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Demonstrators hold protest posters during a protest against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics by activists from the Association of Tibetan Youth in Europe outside the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland , on Saturday, December 11, 2021.
(Jean-Guy Python/Keystone via AP)

Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter states that “no form of political, religious or racial demonstration or propaganda is permitted at Olympic sites, premises or other areas”, which means that any demonstration policy is punishable at any of the games.

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China’s treatment of its predominantly Muslim Uyghur people and its policies toward Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan have come under scrutiny ahead of the Olympics. The country’s history of restrictive laws regarding public speaking has raised concerns that the Beijing games may be sanctioned more heavily, as “applicable local law” dictates the penalties such a protest would incur.

A security guard watches from a guard tower around a detention center in Yarkent County, northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, March 21, 2021. Four years after the crackdown Beijing's brutal crackdown on largely Muslim minorities originating from Xinjiang, Chinese authorities recall the region's high-tech police state and increased tourism.  But even as a sense of normalcy returns, fear remains, hidden but pervasive.

A security guard watches from a guard tower around a detention center in Yarkent County, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, March 21, 2021. Four years after the crackdown Beijing’s brutal crackdown on largely Muslim minorities originating from Xinjiang, Chinese authorities recall the region’s high-tech police state and increased tourism. But even as a sense of normalcy returns, fear remains, hidden but pervasive.
(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

“Chinese laws are very vague about the crimes they can use to pursue people’s freedom of expression,” said Yaqiu Wang, researcher at Human Rights Watch, citing potential offenses of causing trouble or inciting subversion.

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People who speak out in China face significant penalties: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for two weeks after claiming on social media platform Weibo that a former Beijing official had sexually assaulted her.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 15: Shuai Peng of China reacts during his first round match against Eugene Bouchard of Canada on day two of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 15: Shuai Peng of China reacts during his first round match against Eugene Bouchard of Canada on day two of the 2019 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)
((Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images))

Rapid public outcry and Western media demands led to a campaign of controlled appearances and media opportunities to show that Peng was “safe”, but many believed his movement and speech remained restricted during these times.

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And a Canadian cybersecurity group, Citizen Lab, reported on Tuesday that the health-tracking smartphone app participants must download has security flaws, including a list of political keywords and a feature to report a “politically sensitive content”.

A BOC member said the group was “not aware” of the listing and would look into the matter, The Washington Post reported.

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Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, also dismissed concerns that some countries, including the United States, advised athletes to bring cellphones with them to avoid Chinese government surveillance.

Zhao said countries “guilty of the accusation themselves accuse the innocent party without any evidence.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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