- China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo can giveth but it can also taketh away.
- Fans have flocked to Weibo to lavish praise on their favorite athletes and excoriate competitors and teams they despise.
- With more than 500 million users, the platform wields a powerful voice in shaping the Games.
China’s Weibo can sometimes seem like the country’s supreme arbiter of good and evil, a billion-headed social media hydra dishing out heaps of praise or scorn on a whim.
The platform’s 573 million users flock to the site to exalt their favorite celebs and athletes, but they’re also not afraid to go on the attack. Those who find themselves on Weibo’s hit list suffer the wrath of millions of vitriolic commenters, and perhaps nobody knows that better than this year’s current crop of Olympic stars.
In a country where information is heavily censored behind the Great Firewall, web users without access to foreign media outlets have turned to the platform to cook up narratives about the Beijing Games, taking sides and dropping hot takes on the athletes and the goings-on at the Olympics.
And while Twitter-like Weibo says it has banned accounts and deleted hateful posts en masse, some athletes and teams are still facing harsh criticism from opinionated Chinese web users. Meanwhile, other athletes have been warmly embraced by Chinese fans, benefiting greatly from a PR boost in the Olympics’ host country.
Here’s a round-up of the six heroes and villains of the Beijing Games, according to Chinese social media — those who captured the hearts of Chinese web users and those who found themselves facing a wave of hateful comments and criticism.
Japan’s Ice Prince Yuzuru Hanyu became China’s darling, bridging testy geopolitical divides
In the days after his calamitous short program skate, Hanyu received an outpouring of support on Weibo, with hashtags like “Why We Love Yuzuru Hanyu” going viral and making it onto the top trends on the platform. And after Hanyu’s free skate, the hashtag #4A (referring to Hanyu’s attempt at the elusive and risky quadruple Axel jump) trended on the platform too.
At press time, Hanyu’s name was still the number one search topic on Weibo’s sports section, with around 325,000 topic threads dedicated to him.
But his time in Beijing hasn’t been entirely scandal-free. Some fans took issue with Hanyu’s claim that he missed a vital jump because his skates got caught in a hole in the ice. Following his comment, Weibo users took to the platform to defend the quality of the skating rink’s ice and blamed the skater’s “karma” for the mistake.
Eileen Gu, the ‘Frog Princess’ millionaire — and China’s new ‘It’ girl
When Eileen Gu spun her way to a gold finish during the women’s big air freestyle ski competition, Weibo crashed. Her victory netted 300 million views within an hour before the social media platform went down and took up seven of Weibo’s top 10 trending searches, CNN reported.
Gu, 18, is one of Weibo’s most beloved athletes, and she’s turned that affection into lucrative sponsorship deals with brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.
Affectionately dubbed the “Frog Princess” because of a green helmet she wore as a girl, Gu has been the focus of rapt attention throughout the Games, from a discussion on how she ate a pastry while waiting for judges’ scores to her “cute” reaction to a fumble at the big air qualifier.
According to Weibo statistics seen by Insider, each trending topic about her has accumulated hundreds of millions of views. When these numbers are combined, they easily stack up to the billions.
So far, Gu’s reputation on Weibo has remained airtight, apart from a tiff among Weibo users over her VPN access in Beijing. In contrast, she’s faced American criticism for opting not to compete for Team USA despite growing up in San Francisco.
Chinese web users are fawning over their ‘little brother,’ snowboarder Su Yiming
If Eileen Gu is Weibo’s princess, many users on the platform see 17-year-old Su Yiming as a little brother, nicknaming him “Little Su.” When the snowboarder fell in a big air qualifier on February 14, Weibo was inundated with comments and posts asking if he was hurt.
“All is well as long as the precious child is safe,” wrote one social media user whose comment received over 3,000 likes.
“As long as he isn’t hurt,” read another comment with several crying-face and baby emojis, which accrued 6,670 likes.
In the first days of the Winter Olympics, Chinese buzz about Su revolved mainly around him being snubbed at the men’s slopestyle final on February 7. Judges failed to notice that Canadian snowboarder Max Parrot grabbed his knee instead of his board, a mistake that chief judge Iztok Sumatic later said should have cost Parrot three points and put him below Su.
With the error not factored into the scoring that day, Parrot won gold, and Su came in second. Weibo users were outraged, and the topic of Sumatic’s admission drew 710 million views on the platform.
“You stole a 17-year-old boy’s gold medal,” commented one user, gaining 32,800 likes.
Even before Sumatic admitted the error, users were spreading wild conspiracy theories, under the hashtag #CanadaReferee, that a Canadian judge had intentionally given Su low scores and boosted Parrot’s so their countryman could win gold.
Others posted memes of the Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen threatening to shoot, ram, or club the unnamed judge to death. The International Olympic Committee previously told Insider it condemns the memes and said they’re “contrary to the Olympic spirit.”
The narrative around Su changed on Tuesday when he clinched gold in the snowboarding big air final. Discussion of his victory exploded to 1.03 billion views within six hours of the results’ announcement.
Weibo users, noticing that Su would turn 18 just three days after his win, flooded the platform with well-wishes.
“The best 18th birthday present ever! The Amazing Little Su! You’re too awesome!” read one comment with 39,747 likes.
Zhu Yi, the American-born ice skater, tops of the list of athletes Chinese web users love to hate
US-born figure skater Zhu Yi, 19, chose to represent China instead of joining Team USA, giving up her American passport and even changing her name from Beverly Zhu. But her reception in the host nation has been marred by a disastrous debut performance — at least in Weibo’s eyes.
She became the subject of national derision when she failed to land two jumps and crashed into a wall at the women’s singles short program during the February 6 team event, dropping China from third place and a bronze medal finish to fifth. The skater tearfully told reporters she was “upset and embarrassed,” per the South China Morning Post.
However, that apology was not enough to quell the rage of Chinese web users, who blamed her for knocking China down in the standings.
“There is no next time. Shameful,” read one comment with 46,000 likes in a thread discussing Zhu’s performance.
“She still has a few individual competitions left. She can fall a few more times,” a user replied dryly, receiving 6,000 likes.
The vitriol against Zhu got so bad that the Chinese censors stepped in, taking down more than 71,000 posts about Zhu to curb the abuse. Some Weibo users have also come to the skater’s defense, condemning the abuse of Zhu on the platform.
“People online who abuse their athletes are disgusting,” said one comment on a post discussing Eileen Gu’s response to Insider’s previous reporting on Zhu. Gu had written on Instagram that “90% of comments are positive and uplifting.”
But another comment on the same Weibo thread said: “I think Gu’s response to the US media isn’t saying Zhu Yi isn’t bad. Why are we still trying to wipe Zhu Yi’s slate clean?”
Chinese social media users described US figure skater Nathen Chen as an ‘inelegant’ ‘national traitor’
While his rival Hanyu reached star status in Beijing, American Nathan Chen bore the brunt of negative comments. Weibo commenters berated the athlete, who is Asian American, for being too Americanized.
The neutral-sounding hashtag “American Skater Nathan Chen Gold Medal” concealed a deluge of hate comments directed at Chen for his performance, where he stacked one quadruple jump after another to clinch his first gold medal.
“His name is Nathan Chen, and he does not deserve a Chinese name,” read a comment on Weibo that was liked over 2,700 times. Chen’s performance, the comment continued, was “totally devoid of aesthetic beauty.”
Commenters also expressed their outrage at Chen snagging the gold medal over two-time Olympic champ Hanyu, mocking him and calling him far less visually appealing and skilled in comparison to his Japanese competitor.
According to reporting from CNN, some social media posters called Chen a national traitor, taking issue with the US skater’s comments in October on China’s human rights abuses of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The commenters also seized upon Chen’s song choice at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang when he skated to a song from “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a movie about a Chinese dancer in the 1980s who defected to America.
Chinese social media users dogpiled on South Korea’s speed skating team
It wasn’t just individual athletes who bore the brunt of vitriolic personal attacks on Weibo — teams got their share of it too. In particular, China’s commenters criticized South Korea’s speed skating team, accusing their rivals of cheating.
Weibo users alleged that the South Korean team were “serial cheaters” and slammed them for a viral video in which some team members appeared to ignore members of the Chinese press after competing.
Among the South Korean speed skaters, short-tracker Hwang Dae Heon was the target of a bulk of the hate comments. This appeared t0 stem from a move he made on the ice, where one of his skates appeared to move close to the face of his Chinese competitor, Wu Dajing.
“What an extremely vicious character, forcing our Wu Dajing to slow down to not get cut,” read one comment liked around 640 times. “Expel this skater for his dirty tricks!”
Hwang later won South Korea’s first gold medal of the Beijing Games when his Chinese rival, Ren Ziwei, was penalized for an arm block in the 1,500-meter short track event. His win over Ren made things worse on Weibo, with some viral comments calling for Hwang to be physically assaulted and banned from the sport, while others compared his posture while skating to that of a dog.
Another speed skater from the South Korean team, Cha Min-kyu, was also criticized for appearing to wipe the podium before stepping on it during his silver medal ceremony for the men’s 500-meter event. Some commenters accused Cha of insulting China, while others accused him of being immoral.