Chinese athletes had a golden first weekend at the Tokyo Olympics, winning in diving, weightlifting and shooting, and grabbing a clutch of other medals to top the table as Monday’s events got under way.
But despite the surfeit of success, not everyone watching was happy. Online, Chinese state media and the country’s ever-active diplomats were on close watch for any perceived slights, no matter how inconsequential.
Since almost the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s representatives have always been quick to criticize actions they believe “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” In the new “wolf warrior” era, as Chinese diplomats and journalists compete to be the most combative and nationalistic on social media, this has only increased, with demands for redress coming fast and frequently.
After Chinese weightlifter Hou Zhihui won gold in the women’s 49-kilogram category on Saturday, the official account of China’s embassy in Sri Lanka attacked Reuters on Twitter for what it said was a “shameless” photo choice in the news agency’s coverage.
By illustrating the story of Ms. Hou’s victory with a picture of her grimacing, mid-lift, Reuters had shown “how ugly they are,” the embassy said, accusing the news agency of putting “politics and ideologies above sports.”
As commenters pointed out on social media, many other outlets, including Chinese state media, used similar photos of Ms. Hou in their coverage, and other weightlifters were also shown in such a way.
This did not stop the embassy’s tweets from being written up by the Global Times, a nationalist state-run tabloid, under the headline “Chinese embassies, netizens fire back at Western media over biased Olympics coverage.” The article also highlighted complaints some had over a headline CNN briefly used on its live coverage, which juxtaposed success at the Olympics with a worsening COVID-19 situation back home: “Gold for China … and more COVID-19 cases.”
“The CNN’s report angers and disappoints me,” the paper quoted one Chinese Olympics viewer as saying. “I’m not sure what motives are behind such biased coverage exactly, but as Chinese, we feel the country and Chinese athletes were being treated disrespectfully.”
Nor was such “disrespect” limited to the sports themselves. During the opening ceremony on Friday, China’s consulate in New York complained that U.S. broadcaster NBC used the “wrong map” over footage of Chinese athletes entering the stadium, and was guilty of “politicizing sports and violating the Olympics charter.”
The map in question did not include the self-governing island of Taiwan, or China’s vast – and hotly disputed – territorial claims in the South China Sea. In the past, similar omissions have led to books being pulped and websites blocked in China. In a statement to Reuters, the consulate said it urged NBC “to recognize the serious nature of this problem and take measures to correct the error.”
Japanese broadcaster NHK also drew Chinese ire during the ceremony – again over the issue of Taiwan.
Owing to pressure from Beijing, the International Olympic Committee requires that Taiwanese athletes compete under the name Chinese Taipei, and use an Olympic flag rather than the country’s national standard. But when the team entered during the parade of nations, the Japanese anchor referred to them as “Taiwan,” earning a swift rebuke from Chinese state media, which criticized NHK’s “dirty tricks.”
“As a public television station in Japan, NHK should be responsible as it broadcasts live images of the Olympics to the world,” the Global Times said in an editorial. “We cannot indulge any acts of it that undermines the ‘one China’ principle.”
China’s sensitivity to criticism can often seem bizarre to outside observers, with The Economist magazine once calling the country a “world leader in … righteous indignation.”
What can be all the stranger is that such delicacy actually appears to increase during times of national glory. According to one count, in the three months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the state-run China Daily used the phrase “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” at least 88 times, as if the country was in a state of almost constant agonized bewilderment, rather than gearing up for what would turn out to be a colossal soft-power victory.
“The public’s supposed outrage is a useful tool: It enables the party to put aside its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” according to The Economist. This subtle enforcement of Chinese political correctness has only increased as Beijing’s power has grown, with numerous companies and individuals coming under fire for insulting China, forced to apologize or risk losing access to one of the world’s largest consumer markets.
With Beijing due to host the Olympics once again next year – this time the Winter Games – amid calls for a boycott over the crackdowns in the Xinjiang region and Hong Kong, officials may be keen to send the message that no criticism will be brooked even at Tokyo, and stave off any thought of such talk come February.
Nor is success at Tokyo unimportant to Beijing – China has sent the country’s largest delegation to the Olympics, after a lacklustre showing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Chinese companies are also heavily invested: Of the 26 primary advertisers at the Tokyo Games, 12 of them are headquartered in China, with the majority state-owned.
Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, said there is a desire for Chinese diplomats to show they’re building “discourse power” by engaging with foreign audiences on Twitter.
“When they do so, their talking points reflect the assertive nationalism that [President] Xi Jinping has put front and centre of Chinese diplomacy, as well as many of the enduring insecurities China has on the world stage,” Mr. Martin said. “These include the belief that China is not treated as an equal and that America and its allies are conspiring to halt China’s rise.”
He added that any failure to defend China “in the face of Western slights and provocations – real or imagined” could result in those same diplomats becoming the targets of nationalist anger back home.
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