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The Privilege of Being Eileen Gu and How China Uses Her as a Propaganda Weapon

China benefits from Gu's victories and is heaping its resources behind the California-born woman.

5 min read
The Privilege of Being Eileen Gu and How China Uses Her as a Propaganda Weapon
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Eileen Gu has 'Marie Antoinette' moment.

This was the headline of an article published recently by Taiwan News on Eileen Gu, an American-born Chinese freestyle skier, who won a gold medal for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics taking place in the Beijing.

The medal made Gu became the youngest Olympic champion in freestyle skiing.

That achievement, however, is not the only reason why Gu has made the headlines.

One of Gu's Instagram posts during the Olympics became the centre of controversy when a user commented, "Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from the 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," the user added.

Gu's reply to that comment catalysed a furious debate that continues to rage on.


"Anyone can download a VPN its literally free on the App Store," Gu replied.

Screenshot of the now censored conversation. 

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@catholiclawyer)

Firstly, she's wrong.

Secondly, and ironically enough, the post was censored by the Chinese government, after being shared thousands of times on Weibo, China's most popular microblogging website.

And thirdly, Gu's ignorance encapsulates the privilege that certain people in China have, when they have attained a superstar status and are a useful propaganda tool for the Communist Party.


Internet Freedom in China

Not only is there a real lack of internet freedom in the country, China also has one of the most advanced systems to control the content that internet users are exposed to.

The Chinese government has blocked more than 8,000 websites using what is known as "The Great Firewall".

Some of these websites are Google, Facebook, and YouTube.

What we do with WhatsApp, the Chinese do with WeChat (which is now banned in India).

Coming to Gu's comment specifically regarding a VPN, it is a well known fact that VPNs can't be bought and used in China, regardless of whether a user purchases it on the App Store or not.

The VPNs must be purchased outside the Great Firewall and they require a fee to be operated, a fee that is not very small.

A few years ago, the Chinese government coerced Apple to remove VPNs from its app store, while Google's Play Store has been inaccessible for years already.

Take it from someone who has studied in China for a half-a-year.

I purchased ExpressVPN for $100 dollars, which would let my devices bypass the firewall and access Google, something I desperately needed to do in order to study.

Some of my friends were not so lucky, and constantly depended on me for articles and soft copies of books.

It doesn't end there.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has banned "unlicensed" VPNs for personal use.

Those who are caught, and they are caught quite regularly, are immediately arrested.

The only people who can use them are those who work for the government and for state-owned firms.

So, no, not "anybody" can use a VPN.

As one user wrote on Chinese social media in response to Gu's comme, "Literally, I’m not 'anyone'. Literally, it is illegal for me to use a VPN."

Her supposed ignorance regarding the struggles of accessing the internet that billions of Chinese people face is what makes this incident Gu's 'Marie Antoinette' moment.


Gu as a Propaganda Tool 

The VPN controversy is only the tip of the iceberg.

China's portrayal of Gu as a national hero has also generated widespread discussions about her being used a propaganda tool.

Gu is everywhere in China. She's on TV, on billboards, and even on video platforms.

She has reportedly partnered with more than 20 brands, according to The New York Times.

Officials belonging to the Chinese Communist Party, even those in the transportation ministry, publicly celebrated hero gold medal.

The ministry published an article crediting Gu's grandmother, who had worked for the ministry in the past as an engineer, for instilling in her granddaughter a sense of deep patriotism.

"Everyone is proud of her!" the article added.

China's General Administration of Sport sent Gu a letter encouraging her to "strive for greater glory for the Party and the people."

For the past two weeks, Gu has been to the rest of the world, the face of China.

Another side of China, however, consists of people like a mother of eight with her neck shackled to the wall of a doorless shack, whose viral video has sparked outrage on Chinese social media.

A powerful article, now censored in China, asserted that "to judge whether a society is civilised or not, we should not look at how successful the privileged are but how miserable the disadvantaged are."

"Ten thousand sports champions can't wash away the humiliation of one enslaved woman, not to mention tens of thousands of them", the author added.

That is precisely the debate around Eileen Gu.

It's not just the VPN.

It's the fact that she does not really represent the struggles of the Chinese people.

'An American Guest'

Gu is an exception, in many ways. For instance, her citizenship status.

China has extremely stringent laws on citizenship, and Chinese law does not recognise dual citizenship.

The Olympic Charter mandates that athletes have the citizenship for the country that they are representing.

So, how did Gu compete whilst having a US passport?

"I'm American when I'm in the US, and I'm Chinese when I'm in China," she told Chinese media last week.

Indeed, it seems as if the host country bypassed the rules in order to ensure that she can represent China in the Winter Olympics.

Gu has refused to answer questions about her citizenship, despite being repeatedly asked about it.

China benefits from Gu's victories, which is why it is heaping its resources behind a woman who was born in California and who grew up in the US.

And that privilege is what is angering a lot of Chinese people.

As One WeChat user wrote, Gu is an "American guest who is maximising her personal interests".

Other users have started to highlight how the Chinese government, while championing Gu, completely neglects those who are in desperate need of aid, despite being born in the country.

One social media user even posted a quote from a well known Chinese novel, that said, "I love the country. But does the country love me?", The New York Times reported.

Perhaps Gu will never speak up about issues like internet freedom and dual citizenship, because she would in the process risk jeopardising her career.

She's only 18 after all.

Not speaking up might keep her safe and successful, while she enjoys certain luxuries that most Chinese people can only dream of.

And that is why, she might always remain unpopular to a segment of the Chinese populace.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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