The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.
Do not report on the miseries of Olympic athletes; report more on [their] patriotic spirit. (August 17, 2016) [Chinese]
Chinese coverage of the ongoing Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has focused more on the quirks and travails of individual athletes than on winning gold. The focus has in large part been driven by 20-year-old swimmer Fu Yuanhui, whose honesty and exuberance on CCTV has made her a star. In one interview, Fu blamed her “small arms” for her failure to medal in the 100-meter backstroke final. When the reporter told her she had in fact won bronze, Fu could not hold back her smile. A few days later, after Fu’s team placed fourth in the 4X100-meter relay, she was doubled over in front of the cameras. “It’s because my period came yesterday,” she explained, winning cheers from Chinese women on social media.
Other individual stories of adversity, triumph, and mixed feelings have also stood out more than medal counts. After helping the Chinese women’s table tennis team win gold, Li Xiaoxia told a CCTV reporter that she broke up with her boyfriend just before heading to Rio. “I broke up in order to compete,” she explained. “Why else would I cut my hair short?” A few days earlier, diver Qin Kai proposed to his girlfriend and fellow diver He Zi as she stood on the podium, her silver medal just placed around her neck moments before. He Zi said yes—after a pause. She later told reporters her feelings were “complicated” in the moment.
The People’s Daily has extolled Fu and her netizen fanbase for teaching the public that “sport is about the struggle and, especially, enjoyment, but most definitely not about spinning gold.” Chinese athletes have historically been under intense pressure to represent and win for home. Throughout the current games, state media have stressed that as China grows stronger and more confident, “public attitudes toward competitive sport and the Olympics have sublimated to a higher level.” Hu Shuli, editor of the famously independent Caixin magazine, similarly wrote in an editorial on Tuesday that “an Olympic athlete is no longer seen as a model citizen on a political mission who is expected to carry the pride of an entire nation on his or her shoulders. […] Now that China is getting over its obsession with gold medals, it’s time to further advance sports system reform.”
But when “even” Britain overtook China on the medals table—buoyed by two decades of “brutally” strategic investment of National Lottery funds—the shift prompted a “You’re kidding me?” from Xinhua’s official sports Twitter account. The post has since been deleted. “Looking at the medal count” for gymnastics, the state-run China News Agency commented, “using the word trauma is not going too far.”
Global Times’s Xu Ming described this year’s as “probably the most relaxed games ever for China,” but added that “in a country where athletes are funded by the government, whether athletes should simply enjoy participation remains controversial,” and that those downplaying the importance of medals have “overcorrected.” Global Times also gathered three perspectives on the issue from other Chinese sites. Elsewhere, an editorial in the Beijing News argued that “every taxpayer is an investor in the Olympic Games. Where there is an investment, you think about returns.”
Some Chinese athletes, especially table tennis players, have chosen to play for other countries in order to have a shot at the Games. At the New York Times, Andrew Keh and Kevin Quealy reported that among at least 44 Chinese-born table tennis players in Rio, only six are on the Chinese team. The sport is so competitive in China that many athletes only find their way to the Olympics by leaving the country. Li Ping, a Chinese-born athlete playing for Qatar, told the Times that the chance to compete matters more than which country one represents.
There has been some disagreement on how far the public have truly embraced the supposed shift in attitudes. Christian Science Monitor’s Stuart Leavenworth reported that “few ordinary Chinese citizens appear to share their rulers’ disappointment” in the diminished medal haul. But the AFP noted some discontent among the online public. It quoted one Weibo user who posted: “Screw you (China), not only have you fallen behind in gold, but you’re actually soon about to lose the medal count to an EU-quitting kingdom. The General Administration of Sports should commit harakiri and apologise.” The BBC’s Carrie Gracie expressed skepticism late last week at the supposed reformation of attitudes toward the Olympics, arguing that “the Chinese public approach a festival of sport at a fever pitch of wounded national pride, ready to see sinister plots at every turn.” Surveys in which most respondents said they saw anti-Chinese bias in judging and a deliberate slight in the flawed Chinese flags hoisted over early medal cermonies suggest that the games remain tightly entwined with perceived national standing. And censors’ apparent disruption of a BBC broadcast on China’s disappointing gymnastic performance further indicates that the medal tally is still a sensitive subject.
Proposed explanations for China’s weaker performance in Rio include rule changes and a slackening of the country’s 2008-focused training programs. Some have argued, perhaps less persuasively, that lower cash bonuses left athletes relatively unmotivated. At Bloomberg View, Adam Minter suggested that growing prosperity means fewer parents are desperate enough to feed their children into arduous and all-consuming national training programs. (Like Hu Shuli, Minter expressed hope that the time has come to reform this system.)
In any case, though news reports predicted as many as 36 golds to China’s current 20, sports officials had warned of serious headwinds even before the games began. State media’s emphasis on transcending such concerns may have been intended partly to manage expectations and keep a lid on public disappointment. As sports sociologist Luo Le told Global Times, “the media also plays a role in guiding the public toward the direction of entertainment,” rather than national validation.
Samuel Wade contributed to this post.
Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth since 2011.