The Olympics delivers to China’s door some of the most genetically blessed people on the planet. A February 2021 report by the US’ National Counterintelligence and Security Center described China’s legal and illegal drive to collect genomic data in the United States. The report wrote: ‘The PRC views bulk personal data, including healthcare and genomic data, as a strategic commodity to be collected and used for its economic and national security priorities.’
Miami: When the idea of moving or boycotting Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics is brought up, a common rebuttal is “what about the athletes—it wouldn’t be fair to them”.
However, making the world’s top athletes go to Beijing is the thing that really won’t be fair. Aside from some feeling morally uneasy about being part of a spectacle put on to burnish the international reputation of an aggressive, totalitarian regime, there are a range of practical reasons why competing in China could be a serious problem for athletes, their support teams and spectators.
The issues mostly stem from the nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Its unrestricted warfare approach means it feels justified, if not obligated, to accomplish its goals in any way it can, legal or illegal.
The Olympics define “olympism” as “a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good examples and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”. The goal of olympism to the CCP is to win medals. Lots of medals. In fact, if possible, all of them.
In a 2012 interview, Jeff Ruffolo, an American who was on the senior management team of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said: “The intention of the Chinese is to win every medal, every single medal… The Chinese want to prove to the world that their system is the best system.”
That system can include subjecting child athletes to physical and psychological abuse. Few openly discuss China’s sports culture. An exception is world championship figure skater Jessica Shuran Yu who trained in China and skated for Singapore.
She said: “The abuse started from the age of 11 when I started being told to reach out a hand whenever I made mistakes. On especially bad days, I would get hit more than 10 times in a row until my skin was raw…Most of the time such abuse happened in front of other skaters in the rink. I didn’t tell any of my friends, adults at school or my federation, because I was incredibly humiliated. I was made to feel so small. It was dehumanizing.”
Given the CCP’s focus on winning, what it thinks is acceptable for its own athletes, and an evident lack of ethics, one expects the CCP to take full advantage of the Olympics being in China to bolster its own programs—and not just in sports.
Think of the Olympics as a very high-end trade show, where each country is unveiling their most recent discoveries and products in an environment controlled by Beijing. In that context, some of the things to expect given known CCP behaviour would be:
GENETIC THEFT: The Olympics delivers to China’s door some of the most genetically blessed people on the planet. Why does that matter? A February 2021 report by the US’ National Counterintelligence and Security Center described China’s legal and illegal drive to collect genomic data in the United States. The report wrote: “The PRC views bulk personal data, including healthcare and genomic data, as a strategic commodity to be collected and used for its economic and national security priorities.”
In December 2020, then US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote: “U.S. intelligence shows that China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities… There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.”
It would be surprising if the CCP didn’t try to collect genetic samples from the Olympians, under the guise of Covid testing, drug testing, or any other way. It’s too tempting a trove in an area of keen interest.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT: Modern sports are replete with highly sophisticated technology. The skis, luges, skates, guns (biathalon), etc., are all highly refined gear, informed by costly advances in aerodynamics, physics, composites, and more. Lightweight, warm winter clothing is as useful for fighting in the Himalayas as it is for skiing competitions.
HACKING: If the CCP’s past behaviour is anything to go by, it is pretty likely that anything that can be hacked from a team’s phone, computer, tablet, etc., will be. Training is often computerized, and would be useful to provide the CCP and the PLA insight into data relevant for operating efficiently in extreme conditions. Even if athletes already have apps with weak security and ties to China on their phones, like TikTok, it wouldn’t be surprising if China asks participants to download an “official Olympics app” to make things easier (for the hackers at least), likely linked to the Beidou global positioning system.
REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE, OR WORSE: A couple of years ago, following a controversial race, an Australian swimmer accused the winning Chinese swimmer—who had previously been banned for three months for doping—of cheating. The Australian was repeatedly and viciously attacked online by China’s on-call “citizen army”, including with death threats.
Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University said after the incident: “We know that China has increasingly given significant attention to its engagement in global sports, and Chinese online commentators are certainly very patriotic.”
Athletes, their teams, and fans who step out of line in Beijing, and “offend” their hosts in any way can expect repercussions. While that can happen with China no matter where you are, the opportunities for “offence” and the reach for retaliation are higher in China. Mentioned Tibet to a teammate from Nepal? Who knows what will be found in your checked baggage during a “spot check”?
The authorities may also comb through the past online activity of athletes, teams and fans. As former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell put it: “Spectators have good reason to beware Xi Jinping’s Beijing Winter Olympics. [It is a] good chance to reprise the National Security Law’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey would be wise not to attend the Beijing Olympics, along with anyone else who Tweeted ‘Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.’”
At this very moment, the Canadian government’s global travel advisory for China is: “Exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” Remember? The CCP also holds citizens from other countries hostage to use as leverage.
MICROIMPEDIMENTS: This one is a bit more vague, but still possible, given the behaviour patterns of the CCP.
Olympians are finely tuned, and the difference between a gold medal and an “I went to the Beijing Olympics and all I got was this lousy t-shirt (and all my data stolen)” souvenir could be in the fractions of a second. A bad night’s sleep, an extra long walk from the parking lot, a bit of jostling, can all have just that little bit of effect to slightly throw off one’s stride.
These are random examples, the point is, if there is a place where a CCP operative can discreetly put his or her finger on the scale, it would pretty much be his or her duty to do so. I can’t imagine they are giving the Australians the best rooms in the complex.
FUTURE LEVERAGE: Olympians tend to be a competitive lot, and some go on to great things in other sectors. When they get there, they might suddenly find out that Beijing knows a lot more about them than they expect, given it has their genetic data and has been tracking them electronically since they first downloaded that innocuous Olympics app. What happens in the Olympic Village is not likely to stay in the Olympic Village.
In the same article in which he described China’s attempts at creating “biologically enhanced” soldiers, DNI Ratcliffe wrote that the PRC’s approach to economic espionage is “rob, replicate and replace. China robs U.S. companies of their intellectual property, replicates the technology, and then replaces the U.S. firms in the global marketplace.”
That is essentially what the PRC wants to do to any non-Chinese Olympian. While the world’s athletes are in Beijing, they can expect attempts to be made to steal anything that can be stolen (genomics, health data, technology, personal information, etc.).
Then that stolen information will be used in any way that can benefit the CCP, including in the context China’s doctrine of civil-military fusion. This is all done with the ultimate goal of eventually replacing every other nation on the Olympics podium, while simultaneously using that data to gain economic, political and military advantage.
If someone truly cares about all the effort, time and sacrifice athletes from all over the world devoted to making it to the Olympics, they would find a venue for them to compete where the hosts aren’t just waiting for a chance to rob, replicate and replace them—and ultimately use all that hard work to dominate them, and their nations.
Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.