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Nationalist sentiment rises as China off to strong start at Tokyo Olympics

<i>Danny Lawson/PA Images/Getty Images</i><br/>China's Yang Qian celebrates with her gold medal after winning the 10m Air Rifle Women's Final on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
PA Images via Getty Images
Danny Lawson/PA Images/Getty Images
China's Yang Qian celebrates with her gold medal after winning the 10m Air Rifle Women's Final on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

By Nectar Gan and Steve George, CNN

The Olympics has long been an occasion for celebrating national pride. And for an increasingly confident China, the Tokyo Games is seen as the latest opportunity to showcase its national strength, as it looks to challenge the United States for top spot on the medal table.

So far, Team China has got off to a strong start, to the cheers of millions of fans online.

On Saturday, Chinese social media exploded in euphoria when shooter Yang Qian won the first gold of the Tokyo Games in the women’s 10-meter air rifle. The 21-year-old also set a new Olympic record with a 251.8 final score.

As of Monday morning, China has bagged six gold medals — three in weightlifting, one in fencing and one in diving in addition to Yang’s air rifle gold. That’s enough to top the medal table, followed by Japan and the United States.

Many of the early sports — such as shooting, diving and weightlifting — are among China’s stronger pursuits, and the Chinese team is expected to face a greater degree of competition in the days ahead.

Beijing has long regarded Olympic performance as a symbol of national strength, with Chinese athletes — many of whom are selected at an extremely young age — undergoing physically grueling regimes at state-backed institutes.

China has come a long way in the Olympic arena. When it went to its first Games in 1932 in Los Angeles, its sole athlete, sprinter Liu Changchun, failed to qualify for the men’s 100- and 200-meter finals. Half a century later, in 1984, it was also in Los Angeles that China won its first Olympic gold, in the men’s 50-meter pistol shooting.

Since the 1990s, China has become one of the most competitive nations in the Olympics. In 2008, it topped the gold medal table at the Beijing Games, surpassing the US for the first time, while America has since reclaimed top spot at London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Amid growing political and economic rivalry between China and the US, the Tokyo Games will inevitably be seen by some as another arena in their great power competition.

On Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, the Tokyo Games has been among the top trending topics since Friday evening. While many are rightfully proud of the Chinese team’s achievements, the nationalist sentiment has at times been more aggressive.

“Let the ‘March of the Volunteers’ blast forth in little Japan!” read the top comment under a post from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily announcing Yang’s win, employing a common derogatory term for the Japanese (“March of the Volunteers” is China’s national anthem). The comment sections of top state media outlets like the People’s Daily are among the most strictly censored corners of Weibo. The fact that the comment was allowed to receive nearly half a million “likes” and occupy top spot suggests at least official tolerance, if not encouragement of such rhetoric.

In other cases, the nationalist sentiment has gone too far even for Chinese censors. On Saturday, Yang was briefly attacked by some online nationalists and told to “get out of China” for having previously shown off her impressive collection of Nike sneakers on Weibo.

Nike, along with H&M and other big Western apparel brands faced calls for boycott in China in March, owing to their stand against the alleged use of forced labor to produce cotton in Xinjiang. But Yang’s photos of her Nike collection were posted in December last year, months before the brand landed itself in controversy. Other users quickly came to Yang’s defense, but she deleted her Weibo post anyway.

While the attack on Yang in no way represents mainstream public opinion, it is emblematic of the rising tide of aggressive ultra-nationalistic behavior that has taken over Weibo in recent years. Many public intellectuals, scholars, lawyers and feminist activists have been viciously attacked or silenced for comments made past or present that are deemed “unpatriotic.”

In Yang’s case, her attackers were swiftly reprimanded. On Sunday, Weibo banned 32 accounts from posting for 90 to 180 days for “malicious personal attacks” on Yang, and deleted their comments, it said in a statement. An additional 33 accounts were also silenced for “maliciously slandering, insulting and attacking” Chinese Olympic athletes, according to another statement Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka lashed out at Reuters on Twitter Saturday, over what it perceived to be an unflattering photo of Chinese gold medal winning weightlifter Hou Zhihui the agency had used. The photo captured Hou’s facial expression as she attempted to lift a barbell twice her weight.

“Among all the photos of the game, @Reuters has chosen this one, which only shows how ugly they are,” the embassy said in a tweet. “Don’t put politics and ideologies above sports, and call yourself an unbiased media organization. Shameless.”

Some Twitter users were quick to point out the state-run China Daily had used a similar photo, although it later replaced the picture.

Photo of the day

When the levee breaks: Emergency workers in Henan province attempt to secure a levee on the Weihe River as flood waters rise. Torrential rains have battered the central Chinese province in recent weeks, leaving more than 50 dead, and displacing hundreds of thousands. The floods have resulted in an estimated 1.22 billion yuan (about $190 million) in economic damage, according to provincial authorities.

An ‘imaginary enemy’

The breakdown in US-China relations is due to some people in the United States treating China as an “imaginary enemy,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng was quoted as saying during a meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Monday, according to a statement provided by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sherman arrived in the northern city of Tianjin Sunday for meetings with Xie and State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as part of what her office described as ongoing US efforts to hold candid exchanges with Chinese officials to “advance US interests and values and to responsibly manage the relationship.”

The Chinese ministry statement, which came ahead of Sherman’s meeting with Wang, accused the US of wanting to reignite a “sense of national purpose” by orchestrating a “whole-of-government and whole-of-society” campaign to demonize and suppress China.

Xie was also quoted as saying the US was in “no position to lecture China on democracy and human rights,” pointing to the US’ historic treatment of Native Americans, and US military action.

The US side has yet to release a statement on the meeting.

The talks come more than three months after the countries’ confrontational Alaska meeting in March, during which top diplomats from both sides publicly exchanged barbs.

In the months since Alaska, the two countries have continued to clash across a range of fronts, with the US government being highly critical of China’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. On Friday, China announced new sanctions against seven US officials — including former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — and entities in response to US sanctions against several Hong Kong government officials, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Clues on China might be crucial for Tesla this week

Tesla — the most secretive automaker on the planet — reports earnings in the United States on Monday. Details on its sales in China might be key to reassuring investors.

The company has struggled to overcome a string of bad publicity in China, the world’s largest market for all autos and also electric vehicles.

A group of Tesla owners protested at the Shanghai auto show in April. And nearly 300,000 Teslas built at its relatively new Shanghai plant were recalled last month. There have been concerns among investors that Tesla could be facing long-term problems in China.

“The China growth stories is the top of the list for Tesla,” said Dan Ives, tech analyst with Wedbush Securities and a Tesla bull. “This is their key market, we believe 40% of their sales will come from there next year. I think that’s the linchpin to the stock going up or down.”

Although Chinese sales of EVs from other automakers are reportedly growing, Tesla’s China sales fell 9.2%, according to stats cited by Gordon Johnson of GLJ Research, an analyst who is one of Tesla’s harshest critics.

“It seems clear Tesla has a China demand problem,” he wrote in a recent note. “Weak second quarter 2021 China domestic sales likely translate into weak second quarter earnings for Tesla.”

— By Chris Isidore

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