Tea Leaf Nation

Why China’s Internet Millions Suddenly Hate One Australian Swimmer

The Olympian called a Chinese competitor a ‘drug cheat.’ Online outrage promptly ensued.

Australia's Mack Horton (C) poses on the podium with silver medallist China's Sun Yang (L) and bronze medallist Italy's Grabriele Detti after he won the Men's 400m Freestyle Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 6, 2016.   / AFP / Martin BUREAU        (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Australia's Mack Horton (C) poses on the podium with silver medallist China's Sun Yang (L) and bronze medallist Italy's Grabriele Detti after he won the Men's 400m Freestyle Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 6, 2016. / AFP / Martin BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Sun Yang is the golden boy of the Chinese Olympic swim team. He was the first Chinese to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, holds the 1,500-meter freestyle world record, and is expected to win medals for three different swimming races this year at Rio. One of the most popular athletes in China, he has more than 28 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. So when Sun lost Aug. 6th’s 400-meter freestyle race by a fraction of a second to Australian Mack Horton — who had referred to Sun as a “drug cheat” before the race and used the term again in a press conference afterwards — a wave of rage coursed through Chinese media and social media. It’s just the latest example of China’s extraordinary national sensitivity to perceived humiliation at the hands of foreign nations — and of the ability of its online population to mobilize across the global web.

Sun, to be fair, cuts a particularly sympathetic figure. He burst into tears after his loss, and fans immediately jumped to Sun’s defense. His most recent post — “Regret, gratitude, I will keep working hard,” written on Aug. 7 after he had lost to Horton — was retweeted a whopping 1.3 million times. But what seemed to mobilize so many Chinese netizens was the issue of respect. Sun framed it in these terms in the post-race press conference, when he stated that “every athlete deserves to be respected.” One Weibo user wrote, “Horton is wrong. He didn’t respect the facts. Sun is representing China in the Olympics. Horton calling Sun a ‘drug cheat’ is to a degree being disrespectful to China.” The state owned news agency Xinhua said Horton “again and again made up unfounded accusations to provoke and humiliate [Sun].” It was, Xinhua added, “not the first time Chinese athletes were being suspected for no good reason.”

Sun was indeed banned from competing for three months in 2014 after testing positive for a banned substance. But the athlete has argued that it was medication for a chronic heart condition. One Weibo fan wrote a long article explaining Sun’s chronic heart disease and how he was prescribed a drug without knowing that it had trimetazidine, the banned ingredient. More than 100,000 users reposted this article to show that Sun was not a “drug cheat” but a victim. The most upvoted comment under the article read, “Horton, you can win the gold medal today…thank your mother for giving you a healthy heart, so you don’t have risk your life to swim, so you don’t have to feel uncomfortable when you train.” Another user wrote, “there is a scientific explanation for why he [Horton] swims so fast. It’s because he’s light, he has no brain.”

Major newspapers in China also chimed in. While Sun has yet to personally demand an apology from Horton, China Swimming Association and state broadcaster China Central Television both protested to the Australian Swim Team and the organizing committee. State backed newspapers like Global Times, Xinhua and People’s Daily described Horton’s comment as “silly,” “evil,” “gross,” and “ignorant.”

Outside the swimming pool, Chinese media seized on other signs of disrespect. The organising committee used Chinese flags with incorrectly oriented stars on the first day of the Olympics. An Australian television station cut to commercial during the march of Chinese athletes at the opening ceremony and later used Chile’s national flag next to China’s name when showing a chart of medal predictions.

A brief history lesson helps explain the strong reactions that such seemingly minor incidents can provoke. Many Chinese believe that their country suffered greatly at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, in what is known in China as the century of humiliation. When Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, he famously declared that the “Chinese people have stood up.” In 1992, China introduced what the government termed “patriotic education” into the national school curricula, which emphasized foreign, and especially Western, transgressions against China. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s slogan, the “Chinese dream,” refers to the rejuvenation of the nation, and a return to the place of honor it once commanded on the world stage. When Chinese witness even small slights such as a stray comment or a misplaced flag, it reminds them of China’s former weakness, and how foreign countries once took advantage of it.

For many, venting in Chinese on domestic social media platforms hasn’t been enough. In what is now becoming a familiar phenomenon, some circumvented Chinese internet controls to open Twitter accounts in order to defend Sun and criticize Horton. One English-language hashtag on Twitter called upon Horton to apologize to Sun. One Twitter user, who opened her account in August and had posted 37 Tweets, all related to Sun and Horton, wrote in a popular post, “Sun Yang is not a drug cheat. Don’t judge people without knowing the truth.” Others flooded Horton’s social media accounts with demands he apologize.

This isn’t the first time Chinese web users have climbed the Great Firewall to make their discontent known to foreign entities. In January 2016, mainland Chinese netizens organized a campaign to protest the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, leaving tens of thousands comments on her Facebook page decrying Taiwan independence. And after a white passenger reportedly called a Chinese woman “Chinese pig” on a Virgin Atlantic flight in March 2016, netizens went on the company’s Facebook page and left thousands of comments demanding an apology.

To be sure, not all netizens stand on Sun’s side. Wang Sicong, son of renowned Chinese real estate tycoon Wang Jianlin, wrote on Weibo, “Holding down one’s head and forcing them to apologize; it only works in China.” (Wang may have been referring to a recent spate of apparently forced confessions aired on Chinese national television.) The scion also reposted an article noting that Sun called the Japanese national anthem “unpleasant” in 2014, showing that Sun had himself been disrespectful of other countries.

But this is not really about Sun. Chinese web users, taught a painful national narrative from a young age, are particularly sensitive to anything that seems to impinge on their country’s honor. “We are not fighting about who should get the gold medal,” as one Weibo user put it. “We just want to win respect in the world’s greatest competition.”


Leah Liu is an intern at FP's Tea Leaf Nation. @LeahLLL
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