Unsporting Behaviour

THE OLYMPIC GAMES and nationalism are old if not particularly attractive bedfellows.

This is not just a case of elites and masses basking in the reflected glory of exceptional individual athletic achievement by a fellow citizen.

For small nations, it offers what can be a rare opportunity to wave a flag on the international stage. For larger countries, it becomes a projection of national prowess. The United States now battles China to top the gold medals count as fiercely as it once did the old Soviet Union.

Nor is it just the Olympics that prompt these outbursts of national pride and the risk that they will spill over into something darker, especially if domestic media have unrealistically built up popular expectations in advance. Football tournaments can be just as chauvinistic.

Yet there is something about the Olympics that brings out peak jingoism everywhere. It is not for nothing that winning athletes symbolically wrap themselves in the flag.

Thus this Bystander’s eye has been caught by reports of extreme reactions on social media to some of the performances by Chinese athletes at the Tokyo games. Online nationalists have vilified failure to win anything less than a gold medal as failing the nation and unpatriotic.

The online abuse was particularly evident after Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin lost the gold medal match of the mixed doubles in table tennis to Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani and after Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen lost to the Taiwanese pair, Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin, in the final of the badminton men’s doubles.

Losing to Japanese or Taiwanese opponents hits a particular nerve. Yet, Yang Qian, who won gold in the women’s 10-metre air rifle event, was criticised for a Weibo post last year showing her Nike shoe collection. She was slammed online for not supporting the consumer boycott of the US sports apparel maker over its stance on the alleged use of forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton production.

Meanwhile, teammate Wang Luyao suffered the ire of some netizens for not qualifying for the final of the event.

Overall, the spitefulness got so bad that Weibo suspended the accounts of 33 users, and censors deleted some of the most hyper-nationalist posts.

Such behaviour online is far from unique to China, and bigoted trolls outshout more moderate voices everywhere. However, the reports suggest a relentlessness to the attacks driven the prevalence online of young Chinese who have grown up to the drumbeat of a substantial increase in nationalist sentiment.

As the country’s global influence has grown, the official narrative has emphasised both pride in China and its success and portrayed any international criticism as ‘bullying’ to be resisted. Dengist notions of hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time just seem redundant to that generation.

Swapping its wannabe wolf warrior cap for its consumer hat, this cohort is also more likely to favour domestic brands over foreign ones when shopping. That may also be a development cycle effect as consumers in emerging economies tend first to favour exclusive foreign brands before reaching a point of economic development at which they turn to domestic brands as a reaffirmation of their own advances.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any country expressing its national identity and patriotism, promoting its national interests and culture, or searching for prestige and international admiration. Yet, even with the ebbing tide of globalisation, that need not turn into heightened tensions with other nations, or worse, the militarism to which Western commentators often quickly make an unspoken connection.

That that dotted line ends up pointing to a threat of the state in China’s case but libertarian militias in the United States is a separate conundrum.

Nonetheless, Beijing has frequently used nationalist sentiment for political ends in international disputes, especially with regional neighbours. It has been adept at dialling it up or down as deemed necessary. However, the risk is always that it will spin out of control.

Nationalism under populist, not Party control, would concern the leadership. The most outspoken online trolls will be tempered.

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Filed under Media, Politics & Society, Sport

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