As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaches amid years of steadily building political tension between China and Western allies, some have raised concerns about a publicity blitz the host nation has embarked on prior to the Games.
The Chinese government has signed a $300,000 contract with United States based firm Vippi Media to organise a social media influencer-led campaign to promote the nation on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Twitch.
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The lead-up to the games has been marked by diplomatic tension, with the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Australia all participating in a diplomatic boycott of the event due to China's record of human rights abuses - most notably the detention of its Uyghur population of Turkic Muslims.
The boycott has also been influenced by continued concerns for the welfare of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose allegation of sexual assault against a former high ranking government official have been completely censored from the public.
Concerns have also been raised about the potential safety of athletes who chose to voice such concerns, with experts fearing who do so could run the risk of angering the Chinese government.
Director of the Global Athlete Group Rob Koehler says he is concerned about the prospect of athletes facing punishment from the Chinese government if they speak out.
"There's really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes," Koehler said in a seminar on Tuesday.
"We're advising athletes not to speak up. We want them to compete and use their voice when they get home."
USA rejects China's Winter Olympics claim
The news of China's influencer deal comes in the wake of accusations aired in Chinese media that the US is seeking to somehow sabotage the Games by having athletes deliberately perform poorly.
The accusations come days before the start of the most politicised Games in recent memory, with China claiming that America is paying its athletes to "create disturbances" during the Beijing Winter Games.
China Daily newspaper, citing "sources familiar with the matter", said there was a plot by Washington to persuade athletes to "play passively" or refuse to take part in competitions and "express discontent toward China".
"The sources stressed that Washington's plan is a new example demonstrating attempts by some anti-China forces in the United States to politicise sports and maliciously disrupt and spoil the Beijing Winter Olympic Games," the article said.
In return the United States will offer financial compensation and work to protect the reputations of athletes who cooperate, according to the paper.
Washington is leading a diplomatic boycott of the Games by a group of Western nations (including Australia) over China's human rights record, in particular its crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in the western region of Xinjiang that the United States has labelled "genocide".
The countries taking part in the boycott are not sending officials to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremony but their athletes will participate in competitions.
However, the US embassy in Beijing flatly rejected suggestions from China that its government was using American athletes to undermine the Games.
The US embassy did however stress that athletes had a right to freedom of speech, in a pointed message about China's questionable human rights record.
"We were not and are not coordinating a global campaign regarding participation at the Olympics," an embassy spokesperson said in an email to AFP.
"US athletes are entitled to express themselves freely in line with the spirit and charter of the Olympics, which includes advancing human rights."
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