Sporting events are often used to make political statements. In some cases, the sporting event can itself be a statement – like it is with the Winter Olympics and the 1936 Olympics organised by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in Munich. In some cases, the event becomes a platform to deliver a strong political message – like the one Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave with the Black Power salute 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.
The Winter Games in Beijing was no different. The event itself was a political statement by China to showcase its soft power. The event sparked several controversies as Western leaders first boycotted it citing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and then China chose to anger its neighbour India by appointing a soldier – who the nation claims was injured during the clashes in eastern Ladakh in 2020 – as an Olympic torchbearer.
China tried to send a message using the Winter Olympics as a political tool but it may have backfired.
Eileen Gu’s VPN Advice
The first instance was freestyle skier Eileen Gu’s comments regarding using the Internet in China. In a conversation with another Instagram user in the comment section of Instagram under one of her posts, Gu suggested Chinese internet users can download a VPN and access sites restricted by the ‘Great Firewall of China’. This came in response to a comment made by Instagram user ‘cilla.chan’ who said it was unfair to see Eileen use Instagram while in China.
“Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from the mainland cannot, why you got such special treatment as a Chinese citizen. That’s not fair, can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom,’ the user questioned. “Anyone can download a vpn, it’s literally free on the App Store,” replied Gu.
Gu’s comments reflected that China is preferential when it comes to bans and makes an exception for its propaganda tools which Eileen became when she chose to represent China over US. Eileen is a US citizen from California.
It also reflects that Eileen could be among many of those, who are used as propaganda tools, who are unaware of how China controls its citizens. Western journalists have struggled to bypass the Great Firewall of China which blocks Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Chinese residents risk jail time or huge fines if caught using a VPN. China has even forced Apple to remove its VPN apps from its App Store while Google Play remains banned.
Eileen Gu was only one part of the propaganda machine. Ice hockey was another sport where China wanted to challenge the hegemony of the US and Canada. It turned out that China bent its nationality laws to secure its chances of a victory. The Chinese men’s and women’s ice hockey team sheets’ showed that the nation was represented by a large number of foreign born players with some playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) in US and Canada, according to a report by Taiwan Times.
The Chinese law does not allow dual citizenship but the foreign-born Chinese players admitted that they were not even asked to renounce their citizenship. “I did not renounce my citizenship. They never asked me to,” Michigan-born Jeremy Smith was quoted as saying by news agency Taiwan Times. Jeremy Smith was among the 15 players out of the 25 who were born outside China and are foreign citizens and were called to represent China. China crashed out of the tournament failing to win any game.
“If you didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know this was China’s men’s ice hockey team,” a Chinese fan posted on Chinese social media reflecting on the dissimilarities in appearances of the players as well as their nationalities.
The Chinese women’s ice hockey team is no different. Out of the 23 players, 12 of them are foreign-born, including Canadian-born Hannah Miller, also known as Mi Le.
Nathan Chen, a Chinese American who won gold for Team USA in the men’s individual figure skating, drew the ire of the Chinese after his win. Dubbed a ‘traitor’, enraged Chinese citizens urged him to ‘get out’ of China. Chen relished the anger and hate directed at him.
Chen was accused of being ‘too white’ by a section of Chinese fans (who did not use such choice comparisons for their ice hockey teams of course) and his support to teammate Evan Bates who criticised China record of human rights abuses added more fuel to the fire.
Nathan Chen remained defiant. “I agree with what Evan was saying. I think that for a greater change to occur, there must be power that is beyond the Olympics,” Chen was quoted as saying by Yahoo Sports in response to him throwing his weight behind Bates’ who criticised human rights abuses in Xinjiang targeting the Uyghur Muslim community.
Chen is not new to drawing Chinese ire. He does not speak Mandarin, avoids Chinese media and during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang he performed a routine to the soundtrack of ‘Mao’s Last Dance’ – a movie about a Chinese dancer’s defection to the US, Yahoo Sports mentioned in a report.