“Anger grows over alleged Olympic bias,” blared the front page of China’s government-owned Global Times on Wednesday. The People’s Daily blamed such results on a “hysterical” and “paranoid” fear of China.
It may seem like sour grapes to the West, but the conspiracy theories reflect an increasingly common line taken by Chinese leaders that Western powers are trying to contain China even as its status as a world power rises.
“This is not an overreaction, because those abroad keep saying things about China, so China has a right to say something back,” said Tao Wenzhao, a U.S.-China relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said many foreign commentators, including those in the United States, have been biased against China.
If China makes it back atop the Olympic medal table, it would be the first country to defeat the United States at the Summer Olympics since 1992. But its rising tally has only seemed to feed suspicions among Chinese officials.
Because of China’s growing worldwide dominance, their theory goes, other countries are forced to resort to unfair tactics to knock the country down a peg.
Last week, after Chinese women’s track cyclists Guo Shuang and Gong Jinjie dominated the team sprint, setting two world records in an hour, they were hit with a disqualification and relegated to silver medals. Afterward, the team’s coach told reporters: “They robbed us of the gold medal. A gold medal which was really important for the Chinese people because they are still looking for their first gold in cycling. They would have made history.”
Then there was the badminton match-fixing scandal in which eight players were expelled, including the Chinese doubles champions, for throwing early bouts in an effort to ensure easier matches down the line.
Anti-China bias was evident even in the opening days of the Games, Chinese officials said, when commentators aired suspicions about the surprising performance of China’s gold-medal swimmer Ye Shiwen.
“Swimming is traditionally dominated by powers like Europe and the U.S. Now China is suddenly making a strong impact,” read one editorial in the Guangming Daily, which attributed the suspicions to the West’s declining place in the global economy after four years of economic crisis. “When they see they are losing their advantage in traditionally dominant areas, they start to question irrationally,” the paper said.
The world-against-us mentality voiced by Chinese officialdom in many ways echoes the leadership’s reactions to the recent strengthening of ties between the United States and other allies in Asia. Chinese officials have repeatedly decried U.S. plans to expand America’s military and economic presence in Asia as an attempt to encircle and contain China.
Throughout the Olympics, however, reaction among the Chinese public at large has been much more diverse and nuanced.
The Games have remained the top trending topic on China’s popular Twitter-like microblogs since they began. Many Chinese netizens have been strongly supportive of individual athletes embroiled in controversy, such as the gymnast Chen, who lost out on gold by 0.1 of a point.
“Chen Yibing touched me the most. . . . Even facing an unfair score from the judges, the champion of many years stayed calm and kept smiling on the stage,” said one Weibo commenter called “May_Ranran.”
“Such grace is worthy of our pride,” said another.
But such admiration has rarely been extended to China’s vast national sports apparatus as a whole, which has been the subject of sharp debate on Chinese social media forums throughout the Games.
One commenter using the handle “fishing people” noted that her daughter and Ye, the swimmer who faced doping allegations, are the same age. “Ye spends all day practicing swimming at the pool and doesn’t go to school,” she wrote. “She could be illiterate. Meanwhile, my daughter goes to school everyday but there is almost no physical education. What kind of system is this?”
While the government may try to rally the people with nationalist sentiments and cast aspersions on other countries’ motives, times have changed, noted Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at Beijing University of Technology.
“The government can’t use the old ways of propaganda, and China can’t create a better image for itself simply by winning more gold medals,” he said.
Many in China are criticizing its sports system, he said, because it uses tremendous sums of money, an often life- and career-crushing selection process, and sometimes cruelly intensive training to churn out its champions.
“When the average life span in China, its medical system and its people’s overall health overtakes the West, that will be a more powerful proof than any Olympic champion,” he said.
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.