by SEAN HUMPHREY
FEBRUARY 26, 2022
Facing rising criticism among nations across the world, the Chinese government found an opportunity in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to mask its crimes against human rights with the faces of American-born athletes.
In response to “the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” the U.S. declared a diplomatic boycott of the Games, followed by several allies including the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Australia. With China in need of a positive global image, the People’s Republic Olympic team recruited several athletes from the U.S. to help contribute to its biggest winter roster in the history of the Games.
Among the American-born competitors who were well-received in China is freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who has won both gold and silver medals for the country. According to Reuters, the California native quickly became “China’s most popular athlete” and is currently sponsored by “two dozen brands,” creating an overidealized image of success for aspiring athletes living in China.
As a leader of China’s new public image in the Olympics, Gu is forced to monitor her speech, specifically involving any negative topics relating to the government. While she said that the country has been “so so supportive” of her achievements in an Olympic press conference, her American agent Tom Yaps said that she is forced to be “very cautious” about her public statements in order to maintain her positive standing with China.
“If [Eileen] participates in an article that has two paragraphs critical of China and human rights, that would put her in jeopardy over there. One thing and a career is ruined,” said Yaps in an interview with The Economist.
Despite her widespread popularity in China as a fashion and athletic icon, Gu received criticism for the unfair special treatment given to her by the Chinese government as a newfound celebrity. One Instagram user commented, “Why can you use Instagram and millions of people from the mainland cannot[?],” referring to the current Chinese ban of the social media platform and other sites including Facebook and Twitter.
Gu, apparently unaware of China’s preferential treatment, replied that “anyone can download a VPN it’s literally free from the App Store [sic].”
The use of VPN, however, is also outlawed by the Chinese government. Before being taken down, Gu’s Instagram post provided a brief glimpse into the artificial reality that China has created through the use of its athletes to appeal to audiences outside the country.
Gu is joined by other American-born athletes including ice hockey players Jake Chelios and Jeremy Smith and figure skater Zhu Yi. Similar to Gu, the latter of the three has also been placed at the forefront of discussion in China, but with citizens quick to focus on her mistakes rather than her achievements.
According to the BBC, Zhu is one of the various “Team China athletes [who] often face great scrutiny from the Chinese public.” As a result of falling several times during her initial skating performance, certain individuals on China’s social media platform, Weibo, openly criticized her and expressed resentment toward her former American nationality.
While Zhu has since proven herself by completing the same performance without falling, her Olympic story suggests that China’s effort to maintain its image of power has had an effect on their athletic expectations. The government prioritizes strength and power over human rights, creating a standard where athletes are idolized by the public unless they reveal their vulnerabilities, in which case they are no longer seen as a member of Team China.
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games did not just bring China’s crimes against humanity to light, but it also illustrated the government’s efforts to establish a likeness similar to that of America by recruiting athletes native to the U.S. As long as the repression of its citizens continues, however, the Chinese Communist Party will never reach its goal to be a world leader.