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ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Viewers who tuned in to the English-language version of CNN on Chinese television one night shortly after the Olympic Opening Ceremony would have seen Jake Tapper excoriating China for its human rights violations and authoritarian rule. When Tapper mentioned Chinese president Xi Jinping, the screen was suddenly replaced with color bars and the message “No Signal Please Stand By.” The signal resumed moments later, as Tapper was wrapping up his remarks.
Western journalists in China for the Olympic Games are finding it impossible to access services such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Google on local wi-fi networks. Even an Olympics-only wifi has restrictions; local search engines do not return results for the Washington Post and the New York Times, for example, and all Yahoo sports and news articles are blocked on every network.
It’s all part of China’s concerted and thorough effort to block off internet access to certain elements of the outside world, like social media, alternative views and Western philosophies. There’s little recourse for China’s citizens to get to that content, even if they know it exists. VPNs — virtual private networks, designed to get around the so-called “Great Firewall” — are illegal to operate in China.
So when raised-in-America-but-skiing-for-China gold medalist Eileen Gu blithely advocated for the use of a VPN in an Instagram post, it didn’t go over well with some of her instagram followers or the Chinese government.
Gu’s Instagram page is a collection of motivational and inspirational slogans, a scrapbook designed to present a specific, curated image of her to the world. One user commented on an otherwise innocuous post:
“Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from 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,” user “cilla chan” wrote.
“Anyone can download a vpn,” Gu replied, “it’s literally free on the App Store”.
The website Protocol noted that multiple users fired back at Gu that Chinese citizens don’t have that freedom, not so subtly suggesting that if Gu is in fact a Chinese citizen alone — which she has deliberately not confirmed — she is enjoying benefits her fellow citizens can’t access.
Screenshots of the exchange were censored from the Chinese social media service Weibo.
At its Friday morning briefing, the IOC was asked if the deletion of the screenshots was a violation of Rule 50, the rule permitting athletes to speak freely on matters of their choosing outside the confines of actual competition. The IOC declined to comment without further information.
This is the line that Gu must walk. Born and raised in the United States but competing for her mother's home country of China in these Olympics, Gu is a huge celebrity here, appearing on billboards and commercials all over the country. But accusations of favoritism would be tough to shake, and many of the rights and freedoms Gu has enjoyed for 18 years as an American — free expression, an open and unfettered internet — aren’t available to Chinese citizens. Gu is already a huge star in China, but she’s liable to face enormous backlash if she flaunts the fact that she’s not living under the same rules as her fellow citizens.