Who Is the Real China? Eileen Gu or the Chained Woman?
The women’s starkly different circumstances — celebrated vs. silenced — reflect that to the Chinese state everyone is a tool that serves a purpose until it does not.
Credit... Jialun Deng
Feb. 15, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
Two women have dominated Chinese social media during the Beijing Winter Olympics.
One is Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old skier born and raised in California who won a gold medal for China. The other is a mother of eight who was found chained around her neck to the wall of a doorless shack.
The Chinese internet is exploding with discussions about which of the two represents the real China. Many people are angry that the government-controlled algorithms glorify Ms. Gu, who fits into the narrative of the powerful and prosperous China, while censoring the chained woman, whose deplorable conditions defy that narrative.
The two women’s starkly different circumstances — celebrated vs. silenced — reflect the reality that to the Chinese state, everyone is a tool that serves a purpose until it does not.
Whether she wants it, Ms. Gu has become a powerful propaganda tool for Beijing to demonstrate its appeal to global talent and the benefits of being loyal to China. She represents the successful China that Beijing would like the world to admire.
The chained woman represents the poor and backward China that hundreds of millions still inhabit. They sometimes appear in the state media to demonstrate the country’s success in eradicating extreme poverty until their miseries become an inconvenient truth.
“Does Eileen Gu’s success have anything to do with ordinary Chinese?” goes the headline of one viral article that was censored later.
“Can we remember these women while cheering for Eileen Gu?” asks another headline.
“To judge whether a society is civilized or not, we should not look at how successful the privileged are but how miserable the disadvantaged are,” the article said. “Ten thousand sports champions can’t wash away the humiliation of one enslaved woman, not to mention tens of thousands of them.”
The Chinese government doesn’t like where the debate is heading. The juxtaposition of the two women highlights that underneath the glamorous surface of one of the world’s largest economies lie jarring poverty and widespread abuse of women’s rights.
It defeats the purpose of recruiting star athletes like Ms. Gu: to showcase a powerful China with global appeal.
“The reality is that the vast majority of Chinese won’t have the opportunity to become Eileen Gu,” Li Yinuo, founder of a prominent education company in Beijing, wrote in an article. But the tragedy of the chained woman, she wrote, could happen to anyone.
What to Know About Peng Shuai
The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for weeks after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault.
What Happened: The athlete’s vanishing and subsequent reappearance in several videos prompted global concern over her well-being.
A Silencing Operation: China turned to a tested playbook to stamp out discussion and shift the narrative. The effort didn’t always succeed.
Eluding the Censors: Supporters of the tennis star found creative ways to voice their frustration online.
A Sudden Reversal: Ms. Peng retracted her accusation in an interview in December. But her words seemed unlikely to quell fears for her safety.
A few hours later, her article was deleted.
Embedded in the debate is a deep disappointment among middle-class Chinese who are usually willing to go along with the government’s narratives but are incensed by the repeated lies, lack of action and subsequent censorship in the case of the chained woman.
Eileen Gu celebrated after winning the gold medal in the women’s freestyle skiing big air event in Beijing last week.
Eileen Gu celebrated after winning the gold medal in the women’s freestyle skiing big air event in Beijing last week. Credit... Doug Mills/The New York Times
They feel that the government is pouring too many resources behind a privileged member of the society while neglecting another member in dire need of help. They’re worried that the latter’s misfortune could happen to them or their daughters.
Many social media users, including some self-claimed nationalistic little pinks, posted a quote from a famous Chinese novel: “I love the country. But does the country love me?”
The story of the chained woman — whose name, according to the government, is Xiaohuamei (little flower plum) — has captivated the Chinese internet since a short video went viral in late January. In it, a middle-age woman with a dazed expression stood in the dark shack with a chain on her neck. Subsequent videos revealed that she had lost most of her teeth and seemed to be mentally disturbed.
The local authorities issued four conflicting statements in the following two weeks. In the latest statement on Thursday, the authorities reported that Xiaohuamei could be a victim of human trafficking and that her husband was under investigation for false imprisonment. The government had denied both earlier.
The fates of the two women converged online last week after Ms. Gu won her gold medal.
At one point, Ms. Gu, who grew up in an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco and represents some of the biggest brands, like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Company, occupied 10 of the 20 hottest hashtags on Weibo. The hashtag about Xiaohuamei was nowhere to be seen, even though many people were still talking about her.
Some social media users were outraged by the lopsided treatment of the two women. They felt that even though they had tried their best to be the obedient and useful tools in the giant machinery of the Chinese state, Xiaohuamei’s tragedy showed that the state won’t necessarily offer them protection.
A Weibo user with the handle @lanlankuaitao wrote in posts and comments that she was a middle-class mother who just wanted a peaceful life and never wanted to engage in social issues.
“I worked hard to raise my daughter. I’ve bought a house for her and saved money for her to pursue a doctoral degree,” she wrote. “I wanted her to be free like a bird who could fly anywhere and enjoy life. But the reality showed me that she could be the next to be abducted to the mountains of Xuzhou and tortured by men.”
Ms. Gu and her supporters could argue that it was not fair to compare her success with the tragedy of the chained woman. They have a point. But they should blame the Chinese state, which has been showering the Olympian with adulation and protection while seemingly ignoring the plight of Xiaohuamei.
Many of the hottest social media hashtags about Ms. Gu were created by the most important official media outlets, including the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency.
Peng Shuai watching women’s freestyle skiing at the Olympics last week.
Peng Shuai watching women’s freestyle skiing at the Olympics last week. Credit... Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Official media attention is also coming from some unexpected corners. #EileenGupushesbackonAmericanmedia, created by a website under China’s powerful macroeconomic planning agency, had 850 million views.
The website of the Communist Party’s anti-graft enforcement arm published an exclusive interview with Ms. Gu.
When China’s nationalistic online users criticized that Ms. Gu didn’t sing along to the national anthem on the podium, Weibo censored hashtags such as #EileenGunationalanthem.
Known as the “frog princess” in China, Ms. Gu was elusive when asked about Peng Shuai, the tennis star who was once hailed by the state media as “our Chinese princess.” Ms. Peng accused a retired top Chinese leader of sexual assault in November, and her name remains strictly censored on the Chinese internet.
Because she avoids sensitive issues, Ms. Gu is hailed as the model athlete for the others of Chinese heritage to learn from. She’s also cited as evidence of the superiority of China’s governance model over that of the United States.
“It’s so great that the beautiful, talented Eileen Gu came back to compete for China and won,” wrote Hu Xijin, a former editor in chief of The Global Times who still writes for the Communist Party tabloid, “while the blind, disabled Chen Guangcheng went to the United States to ‘seek brightness.’” Mr. Chen is the blind human rights lawyer who was put under house arrests for years before moving to the United States in 2012.
Mr. Hu wrote that China welcomed more scientists, athletes and businesspeople. “Let China be the place to get things done,” he wrote.
Some social media users criticized Mr. Hu’s post, saying it revealed how the system thought of the disabled and the disadvantaged like Xiaohuamei.
“This is life in China,” the writer Murong Xuecun posted on Twitter. “On one side is a Winter Olympic champion who cannot be criticized. On the other side is the chained woman who is being censored. One has a bright future. The other has come to a dead end.”