China

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.”

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

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.

Weibo screenshot of Gu's statement 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.”

Workplace

What the economic downturn means for pay packages

The war for talent rages on, but dynamics are shifting back to the employers.

Compensation packages could start to look different as companies reshuffle the balance of cash and equity.

Illustration: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

The market is turning. Tech stocks are slumping — which is bad news for employees — and even industry powerhouses are slowing hiring and laying people off. Tech talent is still in high demand, but compensation packages could start to look different as companies recruit.

“It’s a little bit like whiplash,” compensation consultant Ashish Raina said of the downturn. Raina, who mainly works with startups that have 200 to 800 employees, previously worked as the director of Talent at Index Ventures and head of Compensation and Talent Analytics at Box. “I do think there’s going to be an interesting reckoning in terms of pay increases going forward, how that pay is delivered.”

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Policy

How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Fintech

From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Broadcom is reportedly in talks to acquire VMware

It hasn't been long since it left the ownership of Dell Technologies.

Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Broadcom is said to be in discussions with VMware to buy the cloud computing company for as much as $50 billion.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Latest Stories
Bulletins