On Feb. 8, gold medalist Eileen Gu posted on Instagram to announce her win at the Beijing Winter Olympics. As social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are banned in China, many Chinese have questioned why she, but not the general public, could use Instagram in mainland China.
“Anyone can download a VPN its literally free on the App store,” Gu replied, according to a screenshot of her now-deleted post.
Gu, who was born in San Francisco and raised by a single mother, has made headlines for her decision to compete for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) despite the regime’s vast human rights abuses.
On Feb. 8, four days into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Gu won China’s first gold medal on snow at the women’s freeski big air event, earning her applause from around mainland China, including Communist Party cadres, who encouraged her and her team to “keep scoring glory for the Party.”
However, her comments about the supposed ease of free internet access in China have struck a nerve.
Gu’s Instagram post was responding to a comment by user cilla.chan, who wrote: “Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from mainland cannot, 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[.]”
Though Chinese law does not recognize dual citizenship, it’s unclear whether Gu gave up U.S. nationality to receive her PRC passport. Athletes at the Games have special access to websites that are normally banned by the authorities, including Western social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Need for VPN use ‘says a lot about the CCP’
Chinese internet comments note that contrary to what Gu said, VPNs — which enable users to skirt the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Great Firewall” — are not free or particularly easy to find. In fact, most of them are banned and have to be distributed via clandestine, offline means.
“Gu Ailing is lying. VPNs in the Chinese App Store are not free,” one user stated bluntly, referring to Gu by her Chinese name.
“Does Gu Ailing care about the millions of Chinese people, including her rabid fans, who don’t have access to a free Internet?” another said.
Others called for people to be more understanding of Gu’s situation, given that she only recently took up Chinese citizenship. “I think and guess that’s what she really thinks. After all, she is just a foreign guest.”
Another pointed out that the fact Chinese people have to use VPNs in the first place “says a lot about the CCP.”
In China, hundreds of people have been harassed, threatened, or jailed by the Chinese authorities for “climbing over the wall,” as using a VPN is called.
Gu has frequently sidestepped questions related to topics Beijing would find sensitive, calling reporters who pose them “divisive.”