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Digital WorldChina

How nationalism is driving Chinese trolls to target athletes

Tsung-Hsien Lee Taipei
August 9, 2021

China's online trolls targeted many Chinese and foreign athletes during the Tokyo Olympics, slinging personal insults on those who did not meet their expectations.

Chinese table tennis players Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin
Liu Shiwen (r), along with her teammate Xu Xin (l), lost to the Japanese team in the table tennis mixed doubles' competition at the Tokyo OlympicsImage: Luisa Gonzalez/REUTERS

"I am sorry to you all," said Liu Shiwen, a Chinese table tennis player who, along with her teammate, lost to the Japanese team in the sport's mixed doubles' competition at the Tokyo Olympics.   

She issued this tearful apology after losing the game, adding: "I feel like I have failed the team."

Liu is not the only Chinese athlete who apologized after losing a match. A similar apology was also issued 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?" a netizen wrote.

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

Li made the statement after the Taiwanese badminton duo Lee Yang and Wang Chilin prevailed over him and his partner. It was the first gold medal in badminton for "Chinese Taipei," the official name of Taiwan at the Olympics.

After the match, Li and Liu faced severe backlash. The reaction on China's social media was extremely aggressive.

Many Chinese nationalists accused the players of not performing well enough. "Do not insult the name of 'China,' shame on you" a netizen vented his fury online.

'It's like a war, they must win'

Athletes apologizing for not meeting public expectations is very common in China. However, rising geopolitical tensions between China and other countries seem to have contributed to an increase in the number and intensity of angry nationalistic comments even further.

Xu Guoqi is a professor and an expert in the history of globalization at the University of Hong Kong who has published a book about China and sports. He pointed out that the Chinese government provides funds to train athletes. Therefore, they are expected to perform well, and it becomes their responsibility. "It's like a war, they must win," he told DW.

Xu stressed that China's view of international sports events is different from that of Western countries. "It is all about nationalism," he said, adding that China wanted to show the world that it is rich and strong by performing well in sports events.

Xu noted that China's nationalism reached its peak during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Anxious to show China is great and strong

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

Zuser found that compared to the times of previous Olympic Games, Chinese nationalism may have had more momentum this year given the current geopolitical climate. "The rise in 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 domestic political agenda, showcasing the dominance of their own citizens and underlining the superpower narrative," Zuser added.

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

She said China's global image had taken a hit because of the country's offensive diplomatic strategy in recent years. Therefore, nationalistic Chinese are anxious and trying to show the world that the country is great and strong.

In China, the extremely nationalistic people are called "little pinks." Chuang explained that these people are internet-savvy young netizens who are good at using tools to bypass Chinese internet censorship to express their nationalistic thoughts online. 

"The number of them is growing, and it is a new way to mobilize nationalism," she added.

Trolling foreign athletes and Taiwan celebrities

Chinese athletes, however, are not the only ones in the firing line of China's trolls.

Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto, who won the men's all-around gymnastics gold medal, was called a "national humiliation" by Chinese netizens.

The Chinese nationalists accused the judges of being unfair by inflating Hashimoto's score on the vault.

The criticism led the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to issue a rare statement confirming that the judging was "fair and accurate."

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

Ito and Mizutani claimed that they had received verbal abuse and death threats online.

Zuser explained that the Chinese targeting the Japanese is not a new trend since both China and Japan are historic foes.

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

The trolling launched by nationalistic Chinese people also extended to the entertainment industry. Taiwanese TV host Dee Hsu and Taiwanese pop star Jolin Tsai have both become the latest targets of the trolling.

Hsu celebrated Taiwanese athletes' achievements in an Instagram post and called them "national players." It was interpreted as supporting Taiwan's independence by Chinese netizens.

Meanwhile, Tsai congratulated Taiwanese athletes' victory by sharing their photos on her Facebook page. She was blamed by Chinese netizens for not showing support for China's Olympians.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory, and tensions between the two sides have been running high over the past few years.

Athletes concerned about trolling

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

But athletes from other countries now appear to be more concerned about being targeted by Chinese netizens.

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

Some of China's netizens left comments under the post saying that Taiwan should be called "Chinese Taipei." Two hours later, Ovtcharov edited the post and deleted the words "Taiwan" and "Japan" without further explanation.