Journalists at the Beijing Winter Olympics may test China’s tolerance for critical coverage

Can China and the International Olympic Committee maintain a “bubble” of total press freedom inside China’s vast sea of repression? That’s the question facing thousands of journalists as they arrive in the coming weeks to cover the Beijing Winter Olympics, which kick off on February 4. (CPJ’s safety advisory for those attending addresses coronavirus restrictions and digital security.)

On the face of it, truly free reporting seems improbable given China’s miserable record of dealing with the international press and its recent highly aggressive bully-on-the-block posture in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, that’s what both China and the International Olympic Committee are promising. Well, almost.

Severe COVID-related restrictions on journalists covering last year’s Tokyo Olympics set an easy precedent for Beijing to follow. Journalists reporting on the Beijing Games will be strictly confined to the Olympic Village, using dedicated transportation to take them to event sites, in effect sealing them off from ordinary Chinese people.

Inside the Games’ bubble, however, journalists have been promised free and open access to the internet and social media that’s denied everywhere else in China. Beijing’s contract with the IOC commits it to ensuring that “there shall be no restrictions or limitations on the freedom of the media to provide independent news coverage,” and Christian Klaue, IOC director of corporate communications and public affairs department, told CPJ in an email that the IOC “has obtained all the necessary guarantees from Beijing 2022.”

Still, past experience doesn’t encourage optimism. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China made many promises. Journalists would be allowed to travel the country and talk to anyone willing to talk to them without interference. But it didn’t turn out that way. During the Games themselves, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) documented at least 30 cases of interference in reporting, including police assaults of journalists. In the first eight months of 2008, the FCCC documented 172 incidents – nearly as many as in all of the previous year – suggesting that violence, harassment of sources and staff, destruction of journalistic materials, detentions, and surveillance actually took a turn for the worse during the run-up to the 2008 Games.

Since the 2008 Games, China has prevented journalists from freely covering China, including in Hong Kong. A simple statistic tells the story. In 2008, CPJ counted 30 journalists in jail in China. For 2021, the total came to 50, making China the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the third year running. One of them is Zhang Zhan, who sits in a jail in Shanghai, wasting away from a hunger strike, after she walked around the city of Wuhan in the spring of 2020 asking people about the spread of COVID-19 and putting up videos on the internet. For the first time since CPJ began its annual survey of imprisoned journalists in 1992, Hong Kong journalists appeared on the list in 2021.

The FCCC has documented a steady deterioration of the treatment of international journalists working in China. As the FCCC noted in 2021, “media freedoms deteriorated significantly” since the year prior. At least 18 foreign journalists were expelled in the first half of 2020, while replacements were refused visas. Overall, the report offers a chilling description of the intense harassment and surveillance of international journalists who try to report the news. 

Last year, journalists covering the severe flooding in Henan Province were subject to intense harassment. The provincial Communist League asked its 1.6 million followers to use the social media site Weibo to report on the movements of BBC reporter Robin Brant, according to the FCCC. The BBC has been a particular object of scrutiny, with reporter John Sudworth fleeing to Taiwan after nine years on the mainland, citing intense harassment after his reporting on Xinjiang rights abuses that made it “too risky to carry on.” Earlier in the year, China banned the BBC World News from distributing content in the country.

In the run-up to the Games, the FCCC complained in early November that reporters trying to cover preparations were “denied attendance at routine events, and prevented from visiting sports venues in China.” That followed China’s explicit promise that “media seeking to report on the Games would have freedom to report…and would also be free to report on Games preparations,” as the report noted.  In the last year, the foreign press corps has largely been unable to attend any press conferences or even observe routine events – such as venue visits or the arrival of the Olympic flame – which are open to Chinese domestic media.

Accounts of these sorts of incidents could fill many pages.

The February Games may well produce better-looking statistics than in 2008, but hardly for the right reasons, since interaction with ordinary Chinese will be impossible. Klaue says the IOC “could see already during the test events that the internet was open within Olympic venues and media transport services and the athletes posted about their experience on social media. We have no reason to doubt that this will not be the case at Games-time.”

China may indeed have little reason to interfere with international journalists focused only on covering the sports competition.

But will the country’s leaders tolerate severe criticism of the venues or management of the events? Will the athletes stay quiet about what Human Rights Watch has termed “crimes against humanity” in China’s far west territory of Xinjiang? And that others have called genocide?  If athletes speak out, journalists will be there to report it. Will journalists stay silent about the progressive deprivation of rights in Hong Kong, including the forced closure of independent news outlets, like the Apple Daily and Stand News?

Will journalists ignore criticisms that Olympic merchandise may have been made with forced labor? Will they fail to mention in their reports on the Games the sexual assault allegations against a Chinese official leveled by the tennis star, and former Olympian Peng Shuai? And the doubts about her treatment afterwards? Including accusations that the IOC itself has been complicit in advancing China’s whitewashing of the affair, despite claims by the IOC that it is using “quiet diplomacy” to assure Peng’s well-being and safety? (CPJ emailed China’s Foreign Ministry and the Beijing Olympic organizing committee for comment but neither responded before publication.)

This will be the test of China’s commitment and the IOC’s pledge. The Olympics have always been highly politicized events that national hosts use to bolster their international image, and that teams and individual athletes use to bring glory to their own countries. What if, instead of bringing glory to the host country, the Games stimulate an embarrassing stream of negative coverage about China?

China’s foreign ministry has repeatedly opposed the idea of politicizing sports.  However, it has also said that journalists covering the Beijing Winter Olympics must still abide by “relevant laws and regulations.” It bears reminding that China’s relevant laws and regulations are responsible for the country earning the sorry distinction of being the world’s worst jailer of journalists.


Asia program coordinator Steven Butler lived and worked in Asia as a foreign correspondent for nearly 20 years, and later was Foreign Editor at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau. He holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University.

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