How nationalism pushes Chinese trolls to target athletes | Asia | An in-depth look at current events from across the continent | DW


“I’m sorry for all of you,” said Liu Shiwen, a Chinese table tennis player who, along with her teammate, lost to the Japanese team in the mixed doubles competition at the Tokyo Olympics.

She tearfully apologized after losing the game, adding: “I feel like I failed with the team.”

Liu is not the only Chinese athlete to apologize after losing a match. A similar apology was also offered by Wang Luyao, who failed to qualify for the 10-meter air rifle shooting.

She posted a selfie on Weibo, a popular microblogging platform in China, and wrote that she felt sorry for letting everyone down. She deleted the post after receiving numerous angry comments. “How dare you post a selfie after losing a match?” »Wrote a user.

Another example is Li Junhui, who won a silver medal with his partner Liu Yuchen in the men’s badminton doubles final last Saturday. “I’m sorry. We did our best but let everyone down,” he wrote on Weibo.

Li made the statement after Taiwanese badminton duo Lee Yang and Wang Chilin won over him and his partner. It was the first badminton gold medal for “Chinese Taipei”, Taiwan’s official name at the Olympics.

After the game, Li and Liu faced severe reactions. The reaction on Chinese social media has been extremely aggressive.

Many Chinese nationalists accused the players of not performing well enough. “Don’t insult the name of ‘China’, shame on you,” one angry netizen said.

“It’s like a war, they have to win”

Athletes apologizing for not meeting public expectations are very common in China. However, growing geopolitical tensions between China and other countries appear to have contributed to an even greater increase in the number and intensity of angry nationalist comments.

Xu Guoqi is a professor and expert in the history of globalization at the University of Hong Kong who has published a book on China and sport. He pointed out that the Chinese government provides funds to train athletes. Therefore, they are expected to function well, and that becomes their responsibility. “It’s like a war, they have to win,” he told DW.

Xu pointed out that China’s perspective on international sporting events is different from that of Western countries. “It’s all about nationalism,” he said, adding that China wanted to show the world that it is rich and strong by performing well in sporting events.

Xu noted that Chinese nationalism reached its peak during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Keen to show that China is big and strong

Tobias Zuser, lecturer in the Global Studies Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also said that there is a common view that the primary responsibility of Chinese athletes is to serve the nation.

Zuser found that compared to the days of the previous Olympics, Chinese nationalism may have had more momentum this year given the current geopolitical climate. “The rise of anti-China rhetoric in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly contributed to this nationalism,” he told DW.

“China may want to prioritize the national political agenda, showing the dominance of its own citizens and highlighting the superpower narrative,” Zuser added.

Chuang Jia-Ying, associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University, also shares a similar view.

She said China’s global image had taken a hit due to the country’s offensive diplomatic strategy in recent years. Therefore, Chinese nationalists are anxious and try to show the world that the country is big and strong.

In China, extremely nationalistic people are called “little roses”. Chuang explained that these people are savvy young internet users who know how to use tools to bypass Chinese internet censorship to express their nationalistic thoughts online.

“The number of them is increasing, and this is a new way to mobilize nationalism,” she added.

Lagging Foreign Athletes and Taiwanese Celebrities

Chinese athletes, however, are not the only ones in the sights of Chinese trolls.

Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto, who won the men’s all-around gold medal, has been called a “national humiliation” by Chinese netizens.

Chinese nationalists accused the judges of being unfair by inflating Hashimoto’s score in the chest.

Criticism led the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to issue a rare statement confirming that the judgment was “fair and precise”.

Another Japanese athlete, Mima Ito, has also been targeted by Chinese netizens on social media after she and her partner Jun Mizutani beat the Chinese duo to win gold in the mixed doubles table tennis competition.

Ito and Mizutani have claimed to have received name-calling and death threats online.

Zuser explained that the Chinese targeting the Japanese were not a new trend since China and Japan are historical enemies.

Nonetheless, public expectations in China are relatively high this year, and there seems to be more at stake when it comes to national pride.

Chinese nationalist trolling has also spread to the entertainment industry. Taiwanese TV host Dee Hsu and Taiwanese pop star Jolin Tsai both became the latest targets for trolling.

Hsu celebrated the achievements of the Taiwanese athletes in an Instagram post and called them “national players”. It has been interpreted as supporting Taiwan’s independence by Chinese internet users.

Meanwhile, Tsai congratulated the Taiwanese athletes’ victory by sharing their photos on his Facebook page. She has been blamed by Chinese netizens for not showing support for the Chinese Olympians.

China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and tensions between the two sides have been high in recent years.

Athletes concerned about trolling

It is still unclear whether the trolling during the Olympics reflects the growth of nationalism in China.

But athletes in other countries now seem more concerned about being targeted by Chinese internet users.

German table tennis player Dimitrij Ovtcharov, for example, posted a photo on his social media account stating that it was very difficult to win against Taiwan and that he would face Japan the next day, August 3.

Some Chinese netizens left comments under the post saying Taiwan should be called “Chinese Taipei”. Two hours later, Ovtcharov edited the post and deleted the words “Taiwan” and “Japan” without further explanation.


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