On Feb. 8, netizens discovered that Chinese naturalized athlete Eileen Gu, or Gu Ailing, a gold medalist at the Winter Olympics, took to Instagram to defend the China online firewall—or the so-called Great Firewall of China.
A screenshot of her conversation with a netizen sparked controversy inside and outside the censorship firewall, with some inside-the-firewall netizens quoting and commenting on the error screenshot when they tried to access censored websites which usually replied with a 404 error message.
Eileen Gu has been in the spotlight for her fierce pro-China rhetoric. While the Chinese state-run media and public have praised her for winning the gold medal, there has been a lively debate among the private sector over her comments about not understanding the reality of life for 1.4 billion Chinese people.
One Instagram user said in a message with Eileen Gu:
“Why can you use Instagram when millions of Chinese on the mainland can’t.”
“Why do you get such special treatment as a Chinese citizen? It’s not fair, can you speak up for the millions of Chinese people who don’t have internet freedom?”
Instagram is blocked in China.
Eileen Gu quickly responded to the netizens’ messages, “Anyone can download VPN for free on the App Store.”
A netizen then posted Gu Ailing’s quote and commented with screenshots to Weibo, where it was retweeted nearly 3,000 times before being deleted by Chinese authorities.
Netizens believe that Gu Ailing’s response does not match the facts. Apple has been told by Chinese authorities to remove VPN services from the App Store since 2017. Search results for “VPNs” available in China are not only not free but even have the security risk of over-the-wall use. There is still a “risk of violation” for individual users using VPNs to access the over-the-wall website. There is still a “risk of breaking the law.”
According to archived information from China Digital Times, in 2020 alone, there were more than 60 public cases of administrative punishment for individual wall climbing off the Internet Great Wall in Zhejiang province.
One Weibo user lashed out, “It seems that I am not ‘anyone’ [in Eileen Gu’s response]. It’s illegal to use a VPN to go over the wall. And it’s not even free!.”
In recent years, Chinese authorities have blocked many VPN services, punished Chinese citizens who use them to circumvent the Great Firewall, and criminalized some for speaking outside the Chinese Internet environment.
Chinese netizens’ mockery of the matter deepened after Chinese authorities censored screenshots of Gu Ailing’s defense of China’s Internet freedom. One Weibo user questioned, “What’s there to brag about in a country that can’t see the light of day?.”
Protocol Media reported, “Her immense talent and heartwarming sportsmanship have impressed fans across the world and earned her more than 20 sponsorship deals with major U.S., Chinese and European companies. But the skier is basically walking on a tightrope. In the U.S., Gu is often criticized for refusing to discuss politics or speak out against China’s human rights issues. In China, she is controversial for what many perceive as her opportunism.”
In an interview with the media, Eileen Gu said, “I’m American when in the U.S. and Chinese when in China.”
According to the New York Times, China does not recognize dual citizenship, and there is no official record of Eileen Gu renouncing her U.S. citizenship. As a result, Chinese netizens speculate that Eileen Gu holds dual citizenship and is an exception to the rule.
One netizen wrote on Weibo, “I really can’t empathize with the princess, I see a different world, and even envy is not pure … Did she say in the mainland she can literally speak freely, but all I can see is 404.”