After Instagram Response, Eileen Gu Faces Criticism Over ‘Special Treatment’

With a gold medal under her belt, Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old American-born Chinese skier, became a superstar almost overnight in China, charming the country with her superior athletic skills, supermodel looks and his extraordinary intelligence.

In recent days, however, the surge of adulation for Gu on the Chinese internet has been somewhat tempered by a small undercurrent of discontent. Some social media users blame her for ignoring her privileged status after comments she made about internet freedom in China.

It all started when a user commented on one of Gu’s Instagram posts before she won the gold medal in the women’s big air freeski event last week.

“Why can you use Instagram and millions of mainland Chinese can’t,” the commenter wrote, according to a screenshot of the since-deleted exchange. The user then asked why Gu received “special treatment” compared to other Chinese citizens.

“It’s not fair, can you speak for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom,” the user added.

“Anyone can download a VPN,” Gu replied, according to the screenshot. “It’s literally free on the App Store.”

Most major western news sites and social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are outright blocked in China. Some Chinese, including several Olympic athletes like Gu, can cross the digital border using a VPN or virtual private network. But VPNs are increasingly difficult to access on the mainland, and Chinese authorities have punished citizens who used the technology to evolve the system of state-controlled internet filters known as the Great Firewall.

Within days, a screenshot of the Instagram exchange was circulating on Chinese social media. While some people praised Gu for her fighting spirit, others criticized her for being out of touch with the struggle of ordinary Chinese citizens.

“Literally I’m ‘nobody,'” wrote one user. “Literally, it’s illegal for me to use a VPN.”

The fervent discussion about Gu’s personal life in recent days has also sparked broader discussions about China’s lingering social inequalities. Several articles suggesting that the Chinese government was granting an exception to its ban on dual citizenship, allowing Gu to keep his US passport, have been censored in recent days. (Gu declined to answer repeated questions about his nationality.)

His mother, Yan Gu, is the daughter of a former Chinese government official and has worked for investment banks in the United States and as a venture capitalist between California and China. Eileen Gu also enjoyed an elite education in the United States and China, which is beyond the reach of most Chinese families.

In a viral post, a writer drew a comparison between Gu and a southern Chinese woman who appeared in a recent widely circulated video chained by the neck inside a shed. Since its release last month, the video has sparked public anger at Chinese authorities for their failure to protect vulnerable women.

“The systemic challenges and structural impediments that Chinese women face have not changed,” the author’s article writes. “The reality is that the vast majority of women have no chance of becoming Eileen Gu.”

In recent days, Chinese censors have also intervened to block this article.

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