Silence on Chinese doping scandal, except abroad

Silence on Chinese doping scandal, except abroad
Silence on Chinese doping scandal, except abroad

In recent years, as Chinese athletes have been accused of doping, the Chinese government has mobilized its vast propaganda apparatus, including state-run newspapers, television commentators and social media accounts, to defend the accused and deflect criticism away from its sports system.

Yet the recent revelation that 23 elite Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned substance ahead of the 2021 Olympics has been met with an unusual response from China: near silence. While the scandal is hotly debated abroad, including in congressional sessions, Chinese media have largely limited their coverage to scant official statements. Online discussions of the controversy have been heavily censored, a level of suppression typically reserved for highly sensitive political issues.

This shift in strategy, experts suggest, is due to the high stakes surrounding the upcoming Paris Olympics. Eleven of the 23 swimmers who failed the 2021 test are set to compete in Paris. Swimming is an important sport for China, with substantial investment over the years to establish itself as a dominant force at the Olympics.

China has denied any wrongdoing, saying it has made significant efforts to clean up its sports industry, particularly after doping scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite those efforts, the recent allegations are highly embarrassing for a nation where sporting success is closely tied to the image of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“There’s virtually no media coverage of this issue in China, which is very different from before, when other Chinese athletes were accused of doping,” said Haozhou Pu, an associate professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in Chinese sports. Pu speculates that officials are hoping the story, which gained international attention through a New York Times report in April, will fizzle out before the Olympics, avoiding distractions for both the Chinese public and the swimming team.

In stark contrast to the current silence, when China’s top swimmer, Sun Yang, faced doping charges in 2018, state media scrutinized the fairness of the investigation and social media was flooded with supportive comments. Now, coverage of the 23 swimmers is limited to official statements. Chinese authorities say the positive tests were due to traces of a banned substance from contaminated food, a defense some experts say is questionable. The swimmers have remained silent.

Chinese news outlets echoed official lines from the Foreign Ministry and Chinada, the country’s anti-doping agency, refuting the New York Times report and accusing the paper of violating media ethics. An editorial in the Communist Party-run Global Times accused rival nations of manipulating the doping issue to tarnish China’s swimming program.

On Weibo, China’s social media platform, searches for doping and the swimming team mostly yield official statements. This is a departure from the more lenient approach seen as recently as 2022, when Weibo users rallied behind weightlifter Lyu Xiaojun amid doping allegations, accusing Westerners of framing him.

Xiao Qiang, an expert on Chinese censorship at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that the level of censorship on this issue is comparable to that applied to sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or Taiwan’s elections. This is the first time that censors have completely banned online criticism of athletes accused of doping.

The scandal comes at a difficult time for the General Administration of Sport of China, which oversees the Chinese Olympic Committee. In May, it was announced that the authority’s former head, Gou Zhongwen, was under investigation for corruption. The official explanation for the positive tests — that the athletes had been unknowingly contaminated with trimetazidine (TMZ) through food — could further erode public trust in China’s management of sports.

U.S. officials and other experts say that under the protocol, the swimmers should have been suspended or publicly identified pending investigations. They blame the failure to comply on Chinese sports authorities, the international governing body for swimming, World Aquatics, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The New York Times also reported that three of the 23 swimmers had previously tested positive for another banned substance, clenbuterol, that had not been made public. WADA confirmed those positive tests, attributing them to contaminated food, but did not explain why China had not followed rules requiring public disclosure.