China’s Xi Names Eileen Gu, But Skips Photo With Olympic Star
(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping celebrated the heroes of the Beijing Winter Olympics, calling out American-born freeskier Eileen Gu whose decision to represent China became a soft power win for his state.
At an awards ceremony Friday in Beijing featuring the Communist Party’s top leadership, Xi praised Covid controls that allowed the Olympics to go ahead earlier this year. “China’s Covid policies have once again withstood tests,” Xi said, adding the sporting event showed China was a “reliable, lovable and trustworthy” country.
While the Chinese leader mostly stuck to the Communist Party’s usual talking points during his 50-minute speech, the ceremony was notable, in part, because of its low-key treatment of Gu, 18, who wasn’t among the athletes shown receiving awards from Xi and other state leaders. She was largely absent from state broadcasts.
That is, until Xi mentioned her by name while touting how the Winter Olympics had highlighted Chinese culture, including a variety of local snacks popular among the athletes. “Gu Ailing loves to eat Chinese pies,” he said, referring to the athlete by her name in Chinese in a line that wasn’t included in official transcripts of the speech, but won applause in the Great Hall of the People.
A video clip posted on the Twitter-like Weibo showed the double gold medalist being greeted with support as she entered the hall. The American-born teenager’s decision to represent China at the Olympics was portrayed by Chinese state media during the games as a win for Beijing, as it spars with Washington on everything from trade to human rights.
Gu’s somewhat muted presence at the event could be down to her dual identity: in China, she represents both American sporting ability and Chinese academic rigor, according to Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the Australian National University Taiwan Studies program. “Gu’s sports achievement may be interpreted as a success of China,” he added, but not necessarily in the nationalistic model Xi prefers.
Short-track speed-skater Wu Dajing and film director Zhang Yimou were among those who received awards from Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. Some 150 Olympic athletes and officials were awarded for their contributions at the event.
The Olympic Games took place without a major protest or virus debacle, despite facing headwinds from a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott over alleged human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region and tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations of mistreatment by a former vice premier.
While Ukraine tensions were apparent when Xi hosted Vladimir Putin for a summit ahead of the Olympics, the Russian president didn’t launch his invasion until after the closing ceremony, allowing global attention to remain on the games. Beijing ended the event with a record nine gold medals, including Gu’s two.
Xi has occasionally hosted such awards ceremonies to declare victory in causes of particular political significance, including a similar event in 2020 to mark China’s early success against Covid-19. Friday’s celebration in Beijing, however, came as China’s battled its worst outbreak since the initial crisis in Wuhan.
In the financial hub of Shanghai, desperate scenes were unfolding as some 25 million residents were locked down and many struggled to access basic medical care and food supplies, shaking some people’s once staunch support of China’s Covid Zero strategy. That angst risks becoming one of the biggest challenges to Xi since he took power in 2012, and comes months before he’s expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term at a twice-a-decade party congress.
Xi used the Friday event as an opportunity to bolster confidence in the Communist Party’s leadership and China’s political system, as he also faces international pressure from leaders in the U.S. and Europe to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine and turn away from Putin.
“As long as we stick to party’s leadership,” Xi said, “we can overcome whatever obstacles lie ahead and achieve whatever goals we want to.”
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With assistance from Bloomberg