China Defends Winter Olympics With Twitter Tirades and Influencer Deals

As part of a broader push to boost and defend the Winter Olympics’ global public image, Chinese diplomats and state media outlets have been fighting back on Twitter against criticism of food in the “closed loop” bubble. The fare on offer has received mixed reviews from athletes and media.

Global Times’ summary does not capture the full breadth and complexity of Olympic dietary discourse. The article it cited about U.S. snowboarder Tessa Maud’s enthusiasm for the bubble food, for example, was published by an American outlet. Complaints, meanwhile, have come not only from other U.S. media. One Korean skater told Yonhap News Agency that when she saw the food on offer, “I wanted to go home right then and there.” German downhill coach Christian Schwaiger was among many others who have praised the food at the athlete’s village, but he criticized an inappropriate selection of “no hot meals […] crisps, some nuts and chocolate and nothing else” at “The Rock” alpine venue. Food and other conditions in the quarantine hotels provided for athletes who test positive for COVID-19 have come under particular criticism, including from athletes such as Russia’s Valeria Vasnetsova, and an IOC executive conceded that on that front, “we’re not necessarily meeting the conditions that we expected.” A Finnish team doctor also complained that the process by which athletes were quarantined was “not based on medicine or science, it’s more cultural and political decisions.”

Another member of the Finnish contingent was reportedly pressured to delete photos she had posted of water leaks in the athletes’ accommodation:

Food controversies also struck during the 2008 Olympics. The New York Times reported that a scout for the U.S. team’s caterers found local supermarket chicken “so full of steroids that we never could have given it to athletes. They all would have tested positive.” According to Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s autobiography, his three world records in Beijing were fueled entirely by an estimated 1,000 chicken nuggets, “the only food I could properly trust which wouldn’t affect my stomach.”

The social media crusade to defend the honor of Beijing’s caterers is part of a broader campaign. At The Wall Street Journal, Georgia Wells and Liza Lin reported on coordinated efforts to swamp activist hashtags focused on the backdrop of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang:

In a campaign that began in late October, the largely automated accounts are posting spam-like notes that Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, professors at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, say appear intended to make the hashtag harder for activists to mobilize around.

[…] “The Chinese propaganda apparatus has been very focused on defending their image regarding the treatment of the Uyghur, while also promoting the Olympics. This hashtag is at the nexus of those two things,” Mr. Linvill said.

In addition to making content from human-rights advocates harder to find, the flooding could also be intended to trigger Twitter’s monitoring systems as spam, in which case all related content would be removed, Messrs. Linvill and Warren said.

[…] An analysis by The Wall Street Journal showed many accounts that appeared to latch onto the #GenocideGames hashtag sought to give the impression that they belonged to users from non-Chinese backgrounds, with names such as Erin Lockett and Isaac Churchill.

Often, the accounts retweeted subjects completely unrelated to Xinjiang or China, including romance and the National Football League, according to tweets viewed by the Journal. Seventy percent of the accounts tweeting the #GenocideGames hashtag had zero followers, according to the Clemson research. [Source]

Another challenge to Xinjiang-focused Olympic protests arose at George Washington University, where members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) petitioned the school administration for punishment of students who had displayed posters by artist and former CDT cartoonist Badiucao, which they said “insulted China and discriminated against Asians.” The posters depict human rights violations blended with Olympic sports, including most controversially a curler pushing a coronavirus—an image intended as a critique of Chinese authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, but one which lands awkwardly in the pandemic-era American context of blame-deflection and anti-Asian violence.

University president Mark Wrighton initially replied to the protesting students that he was “personally offended by the posters,” and pledged to have them removed “as soon as possible” and to “undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.” Days later, though, Wrighton wrote in a public statement that “these responses were mistakes [….] I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.” He added that “there is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters.” Badiucao welcomed this U-turn, but questioned why Wrighton had not investigated more thoroughly in the first place. The artist called for the posters to be replaced, and for the students who had put them up to be protected from intimidation and harassment. Others suggested that Wrighton should have been better prepared given the number of similar, widely publicized incidents in the recent past. From Josh Rogin at The Washington Post:

Chinese students who support Beijing’s policies may in fact be offended, but as Wrighton (belatedly) acknowledged, that doesn’t give them the right to censor other students, Chinese or otherwise. And although rising violence against Asians and Asian Americans is real and troubling, as Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian wrote in Axios Monday, “Chinese international student groups sometimes use the language of social justice to silence criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights record.”

The university’s leadership was clearly caught completely off guard, even though there has been extensive reporting in recent years documenting how the Chinese government’s diplomatic outposts often work directly with CSSA chapters and other Chinese student groups on campuses to spy on Chinese students, to enforce censorship and to target critics such as the Dalai Lama or Hong Kong democracy student activist Nathan Law. These incidents have been covered on campuses in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. [Source]

Student newspaper The GW Hatchet posted a thorough account of the controversy, noting media coverage elsewhere, statements from legislators and campus groups, and lingering concern over the coronavirus-themed poster and the harm that might result from its misinterpretation.

Other observers, including writer Eric Fish and Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang, have previously emphasized that while direct coordination between Chinese officials and CSSAs does happen, it should not be assumed, and that pro-CCP students often act independently for a variety of their own reasons. HRW’s Maya Wang also discussed the involvement of Chinese students in U.S. campus politics with Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

In Israel, The Jerusalem Post has reported consular efforts to enlist the help of Chinese students in monitoring local media coverage of the Olympics:

An official asked students on multiple campuses in Israel to seek out and send Israeli media coverage of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to screenshots obtained by The Jerusalem Post.

The message ended with an encouraging message to the students, to keep up the good work in their Hebrew studies.

A researcher on Israel-China relations recounted being pressured by Chinese officials to try to place positive articles about the Olympics in Israeli media, including an offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to the games in Beijing.

[…] The use of publicly available information, which Chinese Embassy and Foreign Ministry staff could access themselves, could be a way for Beijing to check which students abroad are willing to help more intensively, with more valuable information. Or it could be a low-level loyalty test, a way to keep the students in check. [Source]

The Twitter hashtag flooding reported by the WSJ has been accompanied by efforts to recruit Western influencers to boost the Games’ image. From Vincent Ni at The Guardian:

In November, as Joe Biden contemplated a diplomatic boycott, Vipinder Jaswal, a US-based Newsweek contributor and former Fox News and HSBC executive, signed a $300,000 contract with China’s consulate general in New York to “strategise and execute” an influencer campaign promoting the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the US.

The contract, which has been registered with the US Department of Justice, lays out a detailed public relations strategy. According to the agreement, between 22 November and 13 March, when the Winter Paralympics end, each influencer will be asked to produce three to five “deliverables”, meaning content that is crafted to fit the targeted audience. Jaswal claims his company has received up to 50 pitches from influencers ranging from former Olympians to entrepreneurs.

The contract states that 70% of the content will be culture-related, including Beijing’s history, cultural relics, modem life of people and new trends. Another 20% will highlight “cooperation and any good things in China-US relations”, including high-level bilateral changes and positive outcomes.

Jaswal, who was born in the UK, received $210,000 shortly after the contract was sealed with Chinese diplomats, he told the Observer. He promised Beijing that his influencers would bring an estimated 3 million impressions on social media platforms frequently used by young Americans. [Source]

While Jaswal claimed that “what we are trying to do is to simply highlight the integrity and dignity of the Olympics,” Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton observed that other, less innocuous content was being amplified by YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, including videos from pro-Beijing vloggers previously highlighted by The New York Times’ reporting.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.