Eileen Gu posing with her gold medal
Eileen Gu is celebrated as a national hero in China. But some critics think she’s an opportunist who doesn’t empathize with ordinary Chinese people.
Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

Eileen Gu defends China’s internet freedom. Her message is censored.

The contentious comment: “anyone can download a vpn its literally free on the App Store.”

Controversy has swirled around U.S.-born skier Eileen Gu ever since she said she would compete in the Olympics as a member of the Chinese team rather than for the U.S., and all that chatter only got louder after she won a gold medal Tuesday. Amid the internet furor over her citizenship and her identity, a comment she made intended to defend China’s internet freedom backfired.

While state media and the general public raved about her championship and loyalty to China, her denial of the lived realities of 1.4 billion Chinese people sparked heated discussions.

“Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from mainland cannot,” one Instagram user fired off at Gu in Instagram comments made before her competition in women’s freeski big air. “Why you got such special treatment as a Chinese citizen. That’s not fair, can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom[?]”

Instagram is blocked in China, along with other international social media apps including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. “[A]nyone can download a vpn its literally free on the App Store,” Gu, who has repeatedly dodged questions about her citizenship and geopolitics, promptly responded. A screenshot of her comment made the rounds on Weibo after she snagged the gold medal.

Many Weibo users marveled at Gu’s unwavering ability to push back against “keyboard warriors” and defend “the motherland.” Others, however, were irked by Gu’s comment, and invoked the phrase, “Why don’t they eat minced meat?” — a quote by a Chinese emperor taken to reflect his frivolous disregard for his famished citizens and his poor understanding of their plight.

Ironically, the screenshot of Gu defending China's internet freedom was censored on Weibo on Tuesday.Screenshot: Weibo

“Literally, I’m not ‘anyone.’ Literally, it’s illegal for me to use a VPN. Literally, it’s not fxxking free at all,” one Weibo user railed.

In recent years, Chinese authorities have blocked many VPN services, punished individual Chinese citizens who used VPNs to circumvent the Great Firewall and criminalized some for their speech made outside of China’s internet. The government in November also introduced a set of draft rules seeking to ban providers of tools, such as VPNs, that can help web users bypass state controls on inbound information.

Ironically, the screenshot of Gu defending China's internet freedom was censored on Weibo on Tuesday after being shared 3,000 times. The original Weibo post still exists, but the screenshot of her VPN comment has turned blank, causing mockery to go even further. “What is there to brag about a country where [that screenshot] can’t see the light of day?” another Weibo user asked.

Gu’s delicate spin

At its heart, the debate about VPN access is about the clash between the propaganda that relentlessly glorifies Gu as a national hero and role model, and her critics, who don’t buy the official narrative. Critics applaud her championship, but they also point out that her achievements lie not just in her talent, will and ambition, but also in her privileges, through which she negates the lived realities of Chinese people.

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.

“Any athlete, regardless of their nationality, is free to express their political views or not to,” one Chinese WeChat user commented. “But as a member of the global elite, as a superstar athlete who has a big platform and has spoken out about racism against Asian Americans and aspires to inspire young women, her silence on certain topics and her ‘Why not eat minced meat' attitude rubs people the wrong way. She’s just an American guest who is maximizing her personal interests in this chaotic world. That’s all.”

Gu, born and raised in one of San Francisco's most expensive neighborhoods, decided in 2019 to compete for China, her mother’s native country. Though Eileen Gu has dodged questions about her citizenship, she has often championed a sense of cool duality when speaking to the press: “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, and according to The New York Times, no official record shows Gu has renounced her American citizenship. Rumors in China speculate that Gu actually does hold dual citizenship, as an exception to the rule. But what really shakes Chinese nationals at home and expats abroad to the core is her effortless straddle of the two countries.

According to a profile of Gu in Chinese magazine Renwu, her mother Yan Gu, a successful private investor, would bring Eileen to stay in China for two months every year since she was 2. During those times, Eileen studied the Math Olympiad, which gave her a huge leg up in her American math exams. Yan Gu also put Eileen in private tutoring classes in Beijing that were known for their rigor, which most people in China do not have access to.

At a time when many in China feel keenly the anxiety of losing out in cutthroat competition, and when Chinese expats in the U.S. grapple with a painful reality of being caught in the crossfire between two superpowers, Gu’s experience is a notable exception.

But this is not what censors want people to take away from Gu’s success. Li Yinuo, a writer behind a popular WeChat blog on parenting and diaspora life, said Wednesday on Weibo that an essay she published hours before titled, “What does [Gu’s] success have to do with commoners?” was censored by WeChat.

“In a system that judges people by their success or failure, most people are losers and victims,” Li wrote in her pulled article. “Only when we applaud each individual's efforts and achievements will we move toward a better society. This is also the best protection we can offer the Eileen Gus.”