House Speaker Nancy Pelosi discouraged Olympic athletes from protesting at the opening ceremony in Beijing on Thursday, saying that it wasn’t worth the risk of reprisal from a “ruthless” Chinese government.
Pelosi said that she and other politicians would speak out against China’s human rights record, but that athletes would be at risk if they use their platforms to protest.
“I would say to our athletes: You’re there to compete,” she said. “Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”
It is not known how the Chinese government would respond to protests, but officials have warned that athletes are subject to Chinese law. Some national teams, including the United States and Canada, have warned their athletes that there is potential legal jeopardy in speaking out — from both the International Olympic Committee and China’s judicial system.
“I know there is a temptation on the part of some to speak out while they are there,” Pelosi said. “I respect that. But I also worry about what the Chinese government might do to their reputations, to their families.”
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said she had been contacted by about two dozen Olympic athletes to discuss the lack of free speech in Beijing.
“A lot of people who have either never been to China before or who have but aren’t sure about the circumstances or the environment,” she said, “have reached out with questions about what they can say or do, what they’re concerned about, what the authorities’ reactions might be.”
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