Winter Olympians Met With Adulation and Excoriation on Chinese Social Media

Freestyle skier Eileen Gu and figure skater Zhu Yi, both American-born teenagers who chose to compete for Team China at the Beijing Winter Olympics, have made headlines in China for very different reasons. While Gu won gold and was hailed as the “pride of China,” Zhu fell three times and was disparaged as an “embarrassment.” Online commentary about their performances reveals the contours of present-day Chinese nationalism. 

Zhu’s parents emigrated from China to California, where Zhu was born. Her father is a prominent computer scientist who has taught at UCLA-Peking University and Tsinghua University. In 2018, Zhu renounced her American citizenship in order to compete for China in the Olympics, and later changed her name from Beverly Zhu to Zhu Yi. Leading up to the Games, she was touted as a “skating prodigy” and “a sincere patriotic heart” in Chinese media outlets. But her selection for Team China drew controversy, as she replaced Chen Hongyi, a more experienced skater, forcing the Chinese figure skating selection committee to issue a statement defending Zhu.

Zhu fell and finished last in Sunday’s women’s short program team event, and fell another two times during Monday’s free skate event. “I’m upset and a little embarrassed,” said Zhu, who broke down in tears at the end of her free skate routine. “I guess I felt a lot of pressure because I know everybody in China was pretty surprised with the selection for ladies’ singles and I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do but unfortunately I didn’t.” 

Weibo was inundated with barbed criticism of Zhu’s performance. “Go back to America,” read one comment. “There’s no next time […] How shameful,” read another comment with 45,000 likes. Another Weibo user ridiculed her distress, writing: “I hate that she’s crying. Can crying solve anything?” Nicolas Atkin of the South China Morning Post compiled some of the negative comments, which grew so intense that Weibo ultimately censored them

The hashtag “Zhu Yi has fallen” quickly became a top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, gaining 200 million views in just a few hours, before it was later seemingly censored.

[…] “Shame on Zhu Yi,” one netizen wrote on Weibo after her routine on Sunday.

“Zhu Yi, how ridiculous your performance is!” another user said. “How dare you skate for China? You cannot even hold a candle to an amateur!”

Another comment, with 11,000 upvotes, said “this is such a disgrace”.

[…] Zhu cannot speak fluent Chinese, something which has also drawn criticism on Weibo.

“Please let her learn Chinese first, before she talks about patriotism,” one Weibo user said.

Other fans also insisted her selection was down to her family ties. [Source]

One prominent commentator was (rather uncharacteristically) opposed to the online tide of nationalist anger directed at Zhu Yi after her performance. Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, called out the “cyberbullying” against Zhu. On Weibo, he came to Zhu’s defense and highlighted China’s future need for athletes with diverse backgrounds:

Not many people in China understand figure skating well, but I believe that many people, seeing Zhu Yi’s mistakes, would feel sorry for her. When she finished the competition, the audience cheered her up with a round of applause. 

However, some people are berating her so fiercely that it amounts to “cyberbullying.” […] I hope that these people will stop thoughtlessly bringing shame on their own country.

[…] In this Winter Olympics, there are many athletes who were born in foreign countries such as the U.S. or Canada and later took Chinese citizenship in order to represent China in Olympic competition. Their individual situations vary. This sports-driven reverse immigration is a product of our times, and perhaps a sign of something new. [Chinese]

Eileen Gu has experienced the polar opposite in her Winter Olympics debut. On Wednesday, she won gold in her first event, the freeski Big Air, using a move she had never landed before in practice or competitions. Shortly after her Olympic feat, Weibo servers were overloaded with traffic, as eight of the top ten searches were related to Gu, and hashtags about her victory received 300 million views. “Gu Ailing is a genius young woman right?” was one trending topic, referencing her Chinese name. “Dad was Harvard, Mom was Peking University, Stanford, Grandmother was an athlete. She’s beautiful and classy,” said one post shared 86,000 times. After her performance, Gu more than doubled her number of Weibo followers from under two million to over four million

Born to an American father and Chinese mother, Gu speaks fluent Mandarin and attends Stanford University. Like Zhu, Gu grew up in California and in 2019 switched from representing the U.S. to representing China in the Olympics, but she has not publicly renounced her American citizenship. Beyond questions about her nationality, Gu attracted controversy when she posted an Instagram comment that seemed to minimize the vitriol directed at Zhu: “As someone who actually uses Chinese social platforms I’m going to say right here that over 90% of comments are positive and uplifting. It’s part of the sport and everyone understands rhat [sic]”. Gu may have looked online only after criticism of Zhu was censored on Weibo, which had deleted over 41,000 posts and banned over 850 accounts for “creating trouble” after Zhu’s fall. When pressed about her activity on Instagram while in Beijing, Gu replied: “anyone can download a vpn its [sic] literally free on the App Store.” 

A screenshot of Gu’s comment about VPNs was widely shared on Weibo, before it was eventually censored. While some admired Gu’s spirited rebuttal, others found her comment insensitive to the very real impediments that Chinese citizens face when trying to access blocked sites, particularly as VPN use is becoming more heavily regulated, and even criminalized. Protocol’s Shen Lu contextualized the reaction to Gu’s comment and the censorship that ensued:

“Literally, I’m not ‘anyone.’ Literally, it’s illegal for me to use a VPN. Literally, it’s not fxxking free at all,” one Weibo user railed.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have blocked many VPN services, punished individual Chinese citizens who used VPNs to circumvent the Great Firewall and criminalized some for their speech made outside of China’s internet. The government in November also introduced a set of draft rules seeking to ban providers of tools, such as VPNs, that can help web users bypass state controls on inbound information.

Ironically, the screenshot of Gu defending China’s internet freedom was censored on Weibo on Tuesday after being shared 3,000 times. The original Weibo post still exists, but the screenshot of her VPN comment has turned blank, causing mockery to go even further. “What is there to brag about a country where [that screenshot] can’t see the light of day?” another Weibo user asked.

[…] At its heart, the debate about VPN access is about the clash between the propaganda that relentlessly glorifies Gu as a national hero and role model, and her critics, who don’t buy the official narrative. Critics applaud her championship, but they also point out that her achievements lie not just in her talent, will and ambition, but also in her privileges, through which she negates the lived realities of Chinese people. [Source]

A recent article by WeChat author @后海表妹 pointed out that while news of Gu’s Olympic victory is a “trending search topic” on Weibo, important domestic news is being sidelined. In Forget Gu Ailing, this city desperately needs to be a ‘trending search topic’!, the author reminds readers of the COVID-19 outbreak, citywide lockdown, and goods shortages currently afflicting the residents of Baise, Guangxi Province, on the border between China and Vietnam:

Not everyone can lie around at home, happily watching Gu Ailing win the championship.

With the whole country wrapped up in the Winter Olympics, “Gu Ailing” and other Olympic topics dominated the “trending search topics” list for two days in a row.

But at this very moment, the people of Baise are desperately seeking a trending search topic of their own, to no avail.

This morning, #Baise City Opens Channels for Accepting Public Donations# just hit the trending search list, but was immediately downgraded, leaving the people of Baise “sobbing in the toilet.” [Chinese]

It is not only on social media that Gu’s performance is being leveraged for propaganda purposes. In a highly loaded moment, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai watched Gu’s gold-medal performance from the stands. The day before, in a supervised interview with French publication L’Equipe, conducted in the presence of a Chinese sports official, Peng had announced her retirement, reiterated her denial of an earlier sexual assault accusation against a senior Party official, and echoed CCP talking points about the importance of “not politicizing” sports. As Jake Seiner from the Associated Press reported, Gu’s post-race press conference comments failed to acknowledge the gravity of Peng’s situation:

“I want all the girls to break their boundaries,” she said in Chinese, via interpreter. “I want them to think if Eileen can do it, I can do it.”

[…] Asked if she shared international concern about Peng’s safety, Gu skirted around the topic, saying she was “really happy” Peng attended and honored that a star from a major sport like tennis came to see “niche sports like freeskiing.”

“I’m really grateful that she’s, yeah, happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again,” Gu said before a room full of Chinese volunteers and media, who hushed when Peng’s name came up. [Source]

Some Olympians competing for other national teams, such as Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, have developed loyal followings in China. “Yuzu,” his nickname among Chinese fans, was the most searched term on Weibo after his arrival in Beijing on Sunday. Chinese-language books about Hanyu’s career can be found in local bookstores, and one Chinese newspaper dubbed him “the prince of figure skating.” His popularity rose after a 2017 competition during which he noticed that a Chinese figure skater on the podium was holding the Chinese national flag backwards: Hanyu helped his competitor fix the mistake, and the gesture went viral on Chinese social media. 

In some ways, Hanyu’s large Chinese fandom is at odds with mainstream Chinese government policy. Chinese fans have praised Hanyu for showcasing his feminine side via his appearance or incorporation of moves by female skaters, which forms a marked contrast to the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdown on so-called “effeminate” male entertainers and online images. After his performances at international competitions, Hanyu’s Chinese fans have been known to throw stuffed Winnie the Pooh dolls on the ice in a gesture of admiration; the image of Winnie the Pooh has long been used to poke fun at Chinese President Xi Jinping. As Sha Hua from The Wall Street Journal reported, despite geopolitical tensions between China and Japan, the Chinese government has actively promoted Hanyu in the Beijing Winter Olympics:

When China announced in September that the Beijing Winter Olympics wouldn’t be open to overseas spectators, Hanyu’s Japanese fans called on their Chinese counterparts to stand in for them.

The Chinese embassy in Tokyo posted a tweet pledging support. A day later, on China’s National Day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying jumped into the fray, retweeting the pledge of support and telling her more than 1 million followers, in Japanese: “Leave it to us.”

Chinese fans threw themselves into a postcard-writing campaign backed by the Beijing Olympic organizing committee to send support to their favorite athletes inside the Covid bubble.

“The stack of postcards for Yuzuru Hanyu is already this thick,” a committee member said last month, signaling with her hands a hefty pile of fan letters. [Source]

Updated at 09:46:48 PST on Feb 16, 2022: An erroneous reference to Gu as China’s youngest gold medalist has been removed.

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