The gymnast controversy – China’s censors at work


The following article from the Globe and Mail gives an interesting point-of-view on the controversy over the age of some of China’s gold-medal winning women’s gymnastics team.

What is really creepy about what’s emerged from the reporting of the gymnastics controversy is how state-owned agencies have rewritten themselves online to “correct” the record – in other words, rewritten history and attempted to expunge any contrary evidence…

What the researchers also found was that in several instances, the stories which had reported the ‘wrong’ ages – either written before the girls in question made the Olympic team or before anyone realized age mattered so much, the numbers were simply mentions in results-driven stories about various competitions – have been corrected to reflect the ‘right’, or state-approved, ages.

It is unlikely that a smoking gun will be found to prove that one or more of the Chinese girls was under-age, even if there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. The international gymnastics body certainly doesn’t seem to care, given it didn’t even query China’s story, which probably shows the depth of its “commitment” to stop young girls being exploited (one should note that there is no requirement on daily calorie consumption as the G & M observes).

So it makes the reaction of the Chinese authorities idiotic for two reasons – one as it only gives further fuel to those who doubt the official line and two because it demonstrates clearly to the outside world the Chinese State’s ability and willingness to manipulate the media. People only somewhat (or not at all) interested in China may have heard stories about censorship before, but with the attention this incident has caused around the world the subsequent “cover-up” has clearly shattered any possible reputation for media independence China has been trying to create (and will make it even more difficult to build any such status in the future).

The article finishes:

So, in the end, it’s not the Chinese gymnasts or how old they are that counts; it’s the Chinese censors propagandists and professional liars, and what they’re doing, that tells the tale.

One very said thing is that I doubt the Chinese authorities even realise the damage they were causing to how China is seen around the world.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 76 Comments


“I’m making plenty of sense. The point about “trawling” is that they’re not interested in reading the opinion of the publication such that it might change their view – they have a look for China-related topics and see if they can undermine any criticisms. It is possible to “read” something without having an open mind.”

That’s your suspicion, not proven fact. I doubt there are many overseas Chinese out there who spend most of their time browsing newspapers, publications and websites just to find criticism of China that they can undermine. The Chinese Propaganda Deaprtment and the Global Times maybe, but overseas Chinese? I’d think they’d be too busy to have time to do this.

Anyway, your claim that overseas Chinese are not informed and not influenced by respective local and national media has yet to be proved.

“They know how things are for themselves – they may not know for people living in other parts of town, let alone other cities or regions. And even then they may exaggerate in their own minds what life is really like.”

That’s EXACTLY what I have been saying all along!! So I guess you are saying, it is OK for them to not get the full picture, it is OK for them to use their imagination to exaggerate?

“Saying MORE good things about China does not mean MAKING UP good things about China. Is that so difficult for you to grasp?”

What the hell? If there are actually good things to report, why not? Report only bad things but not good things? If I understood you correctly, reporting what is actually happening, except for good things is the fundamental principle of British journalism, correct? As long as you say yes, it is fine. Again I no longer ask you to change anything.

“Bullshit. List all the articles from the UK broadsheets from the last year saying that. Go on, let’s see how often the Times, Telegraph, Independent or Guardian complain about UK jobs going to China without saying anything positive about the Chinese economy.”

Alright Raj, could you kindly show me some of the articles talking about the Chinese economy from the British media?

“Given neither of us is going to live for 1 million years, that’s a rather childish comment to make. As for the comparison, I was talking about the countries as a whole. Anyone can cherry-pick regions, cities, certain crimes, etc. But of course because you yourself are guilty of the very crime you accuse others of, forming opinions of countries based on a few headlines, it’s not surprising you might bring up London to describe the whole of the UK.”

It’s called “Figure of speech”, Raj, just in case they don’t teach you that in Britain. You were talking about the countries as a whole? Then what the heck does “in every respect” mean? Sure, I agree overall, as whole, Britain is far better than China because the former is a highly developed country, the forefather of the industrial revulotion, a former colonial empire that amassed so much wealth in the last several centuries while the latter is a poor third-world developing country. There is no comparison. But to say Britain is better “in every respect” is ludicrous, unless you want to play the ostrich.

Exactly, I was quilty of the crime that I accused western media of, I did that partly to show you how ridiculous it is: Knifing capital, London? And what do I know about London??

Whether or not I am going to come here it is my business, you don’t run this blog (as far I know, it is Richard’s blog. Who the heck is Raj anyway?). But I hear you and Si, I will shove it up my ass as I believe in “Don’t force your scheiße on us and we won’t force our scheiße on you”. But at the same time, you’ve got to remember that too, about “force your scheiße on us”, you know?

By the way, I’d thought you might want to read this:

August 21, 2008 @ 2:16 am | Comment

Wow, this Pepper guy even knows how to insult people in Chinese and German. I’m really impressed. And I bet he’s not living in the worker’s paradise PRC, but rather in the evil US of A. Or maybe he is from Germany? That would explain his arrogant attitude and his permanent nitpicking.

August 21, 2008 @ 2:36 am | Comment

>>And you think there is nothing wrong with this?? I don’t get it, why am I wrong to think the above depiction is preposterous?

The point is that China is not being singled out by some “anti-Chinese” conspiracy. People in other countries just have different points of view and emphasize different things according to their own interests and values. You seem to want the Western press to emulate CCTV.

As I already said, the whole point of the press is to report “negative” stories that people in power don’t want reported. I don’t even think you really disagree with that — you just don’t like the fact that foreigners are doing it. If some Chinese guy on a Chinese blog reported on injustices in China, you probably wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. But if a foreigner reports on the same exact thing, you take it as evidence of “anti-Chinese bias.”

August 21, 2008 @ 3:21 am | Comment

I doubt there are many overseas Chinese out there who spend most of their time browsing newspapers, publications and websites just to find criticism of China that they can undermine.

Who says they have to spend most of their time doing it? The most nationalistic/pro-China would see it as their “patriotic duty”.

Anyway, your claim that overseas Chinese are not informed and not influenced by respective local and national media has yet to be proved.

Your claim that they are informed hasn’t been proved either.

So I guess you are saying, it is OK for them to not get the full picture, it is OK for them to use their imagination to exaggerate?

It’s not up to anyone to baby-sit less informed members of the public – it’s up to them to police their own perceptions.

If I understood you correctly, reporting what is actually happening, except for good things is the fundamental principle of British journalism, correct?

No, you don’t understand at all. They report “good things”, but the general opinion is that problems/crisis situations/etc are the most newsworthy things out there.

Alright Raj, could you kindly show me some of the articles talking about the Chinese economy from the British media?

No chance. You made the wild assertion about what the UK media writes, so there should be lots of examples for you to provide.

Whether or not I am going to come here it is my business, you don’t run this blog

Duh, did I ever say I did? The entire POINT was that you have the choice.

August 21, 2008 @ 3:58 am | Comment


If Si could get away with insults in English, why can’t I do the same in Chinese or German? We are all equal opportunity insulters here.


You honestly don’t see anything wrong with the above depiction of the US? If your answer is no then I have nothing more to say.

No, I am not asking the western media to emulate CCTV, in my opinion both western media and CCTV are pretty crappy in that the western press focuses only on “negative stuff” and CCTV only reports “good stuff”. The thing is everyone easily dismisses CCTV because we know it is the mouthpiece of the Chinese government and everyone takes what CCTV says with tons of salt, if not outright rejection. Western press on the other hand is somehow considered way more trustworthy because of the “free” label. I am saying the western press could and should have done a better job presenting a fuller and more accurate picture. What’s wrong with that?

August 21, 2008 @ 5:48 am | Comment

“Who says they have to spend most of their time doing it? The most nationalistic/pro-China would see it as their “patriotic duty”.”

Patriotic duty or not, one does have to spend a lot of time doing that, right? Considering it “patriotic duty” does not make someone a superman who can browse through tons of stuff and find what he wants in a couple of seconds.

“Your claim that they are informed hasn’t been proved either.”

This sounds silly and childish, but it wasn’t me who brought this up first. You claim it, you prove it.

“No, you don’t understand at all. They report “good things”, but the general opinion is that problems/crisis situations/etc are the most newsworthy things out there.”

OK, enlighten me then, what are the “good things” they usually report?

August 21, 2008 @ 5:57 am | Comment

I am not one who will provide quotes, websites or statistics. I am not a debater nor do I make quick assumptions or stereotypes. I have been entertained reading blog after blog of harsh words thrown from one countryman to the next. American, born and raised; I admittChina does seem like a scarry place at times (partly because of the pictures painted by the media). But all in all, our media in the US tries (too hard at times) to paint a “pretty picture”. Not to say they would not follow a story that leads to some conspiracy in ANY land. Most of your sites mentioned link to a UK/European site and I believe I noticed one from Yahoo!(NOT a credible news source, I NEVER read articles from there that I would call “news” or “fact”). I admitt, I do not follow many stories from other sources but if you follow (that is where most of my Olympic coverage has come from) they could not speak more highly of Beijing and MANY other places in China. They have done story after story about various groups of people, the booming economy and grande architecture. The accomplishments China has are GREAT and there are too many to list. If anything, after watching these Olympic games I’d be more likely to travel to the area!

We may be looked at as negative, warmongers who hate Mother Nature and cling to our “super-sized value meals”. But the things I DO know about our country is we cry when others are hurting, we have a desire to help a neighboring country out and we FIGHT for what is right. If a country was attacking China, America would be the first to rush to it’s aid and help protect any helpless or innocent person who needed aid. Our heads (or brains) may not be the biggest in the world, but our hearts are! Big hearts fight hard, stay united and love large. I love being in America just as much as the Chinese love living in China (that’s the way it should be).

August 21, 2008 @ 6:12 am | Comment


Chinese people are exactly the way you describe Americans.

They “cry when others are hurting”, like in the case of Hu Jia and his family.

They “have a desire to help a neighboring country out”, like in the case of Tibet.

And they “FIGHT for what is right”, like when they point missiles at Taiwan or rough up foreign devils who dare to buy at Carrefour.

August 21, 2008 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

Patriotic duty or not, one does have to spend a lot of time doing that, right?

How many people do you think contribute to anti-cnn? If it’s a lot, you don’t need to spend that much time each day to bring up material. Besides most attention was raised during the Tibet crisis, when articles were easily accessible and visible on agencies’ websites.

You claim it, you prove it.

That’s the pot calling the kettle black – I haven’t seen you come up with those examples of the UK media going on about the Chinese economic rise taking away British jobs.

OK, enlighten me then, what are the “good things” they usually report?

This was a leading article in the Times today:

August 21, 2008 @ 10:50 pm | Comment


In general I agree that there is something intrinsic about the Americans (unlike some of the Europeans who carry a lot of colonial baggage): Their big-heartedness and their sense of doing the right thing. America helped defeat the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. The tsunami relief effort. But at the same time it is often misplaced, for example, Vietnam and those stunts the US pulled in central and South America in the name of “democracy”. There was no shortage of dictators that the US had supported, they just conveniently threw “freedom” “democracy” out the window.

I think we should all come to realize that at the end of the day, we are not that different after all, we are all pretty selfish and we all driven by our own interest, first and foremost. Nobody is that much better than the rest of the group.

August 22, 2008 @ 2:29 am | Comment

Robert Duvall’s character in the movie Apocalypse Now (1979) in my mind is an effective parody of the big-hearted american out of place in another place, culture, country, etc. that you describe.

The Knight saving the damsel in distress. The warrior liberating the village from a tyrant. The John Wayne cowboy rescuing the settlers or a wagon train from the indians. There are many variations of the big-hearted american Hero saving someone theme. Most of our movies and literature are variations of this theme.

Having been stuck working with several vietnam vets in life I think were many that suffered from this John Wayne syndrome. Some believed they were going to Vietnam to liberate the Vietnamese from the Communist Scourge, but it turned out the vietnamese were liberating themselves from the French and it became FUBAR because the big-hearted American Hero was in the wrong movie or at least on the wrong side.

The theme of the big-hearted american rescuing the villagers from the tryant is one that appears frequently in our movies and literature. We often try to apply this model to our foreign policy. When it is true it works well, such as liberating many countries from Nazis, Japanese, Soviet Communists, etc. But when we try to liberate Vietnamese from themselves or try to liberate Iraqis from themselves or try to get in the middle of an ancient Georgian territorial dispute then it quickly becomes FUBAR.

It’s a great thing when it’s true then we have our greatest successes, but when it’s not true then we have our greatest failures.

August 22, 2008 @ 4:05 am | Comment

Hey He Kexin! It won’t be long
your name will be like Zhao Ziyang
censored from the Internet
as China trys hard to forget

Now Spelunker’s here
to provide cheer
and sing a sweet song
for your ear

I’ll post it first on Peking Duck
and maybe it will change your luck
So here it is, sung from afar
with apologies to Ringo Starr:

“You’re Sixteen?”

You do flips and you twirl, ooh, what a girl!
Eyes that sparkle and shine.
You’re fourteen, you’re beautiful and you’re mine.
(mine, all mine, mine, mine!)

You’re my baby, my Chinese doll,
You beat USA without a single fall
You won the gold, my heart went cold,
Ooh, when we lost, I gave Jacques Rogge a call.

Your Olympic dreams, are now on hold
Soon the IOC will divine…
You’re fourteen, you’re beautiful, pay the fine.
(fine, big fine, fine fine!)

You’re my baby, my Chinese doll
your paper trail’s as long as China’s Great Wall
For goodness sake, your passport’s fake,
Ooh, what a mess you’re about to make!

The truth has come clean… Miss He Kexin;
Your name can no longer be used online.
You’re fourteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine!

August 22, 2008 @ 12:53 pm | Comment

The whole games has been a joke, proof that this government is almost nazi like in their control and manipulation. The fake fire works, child singing controversy, pathetic judging, and obvious tampering or coverup of the underage issue is sheer proof of this. These atheletes are obviously not 16, and if you think so you are an idiot and possible pedophile. The olympics use to be about honor and spirit of competition, not about countries trying to prove there dominance. Congratulations China on proving that you are not capable of hosting another olympic games.

August 23, 2008 @ 5:51 am | Comment

I don’t get why people have issues with the fire works. They are actually real and people did see them, it is just that what you saw on TV was CGIed because it is tough to shoot all the consecutive “footprints” from the chopper.

Pathetic judging? You can’t possibly blame China for that, can you?

Sour grapes.

Good luck with 2016, you will need it.

August 23, 2008 @ 10:26 am | Comment

Beijing Joke – you’re actually wrong. We can fault China for lots of things, but it turned out to be a pretty good host of the Games. In terms of venues and attention to details and service it may be the best ever. Suggest you read this post for other examples. The age of the gymnast and the arrest of the old women and the deleting of journalists’ photos, etc., are another conversation. For most visitors to the Games, China turned out to be an excellent host, to my own surprise.

August 23, 2008 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

Cheating! Many of this blog’s responders support the age cheating. You are real crooks. Fortunately, China is not powerful yet; otherwise, our children need to learn how to cheat, instead of learning proper knowledge and morality.

August 24, 2008 @ 12:25 am | Comment

To Pffefer
Your choosen Chinese nickname seems to fit you very well. Cheating is obviously your goal of life. China has done a good job in hosting the event. But, the cheating parts (e.g. singing, firework, age) can not be ignored. I know cheating is prevalent in China. But to join international community, you need to shape up your morality. Otherwise you can always choose to shut yourself up, and live in stone age and eat dust, like when you were in cultural revolution. China’s success is because we, who live and value freedom, in the past 10 years stupidly accommodate it, hoping China will eventually change its “character.” Obviously we are wrong, and time for us to wake up. Don’t want to live the second Nazi era.

August 24, 2008 @ 12:49 am | Comment

Wake up and smell the coffee old geezer. Tell me which country is wrecking havoc, creating all sorts of problems around the world. Not China. Accomodating China’s success? Like what? Don’t tell me that you enabled China’s success. You gained as much as the Chinese did by integrating China, if not more. And what CAN you do to not “accommodate it”? Go ahead and “wake up”. Cutting off diplomatic relations with China? Kicking China out of the UN and the WTO? Be my guest.

Cheating, of course is bad. So far the only thing that aroused my disgust is the lip-synching fiasco. If those Chinese gymnasts were proven underaged, they should be penalized and banned from future comeptitions.

August 24, 2008 @ 2:54 am | Comment

“Chinese gymnasts were proven underaged, they should be penalized and banned from future comeptitions [sic].”

That’s where we go off the rails. If true, I doubt He Kexin was the mastermind here. When US dopers get caught and banned, they usually have nobody to blame but themselves. If the allegations prove valid, can we say the same of He? I doubt it. Rather, should punishment need to be administered, I think that sanctions against the Chinese gymnastics federation, including large fines and/or possible bans from a set number of future competitions, would be more appropriate than taking something away from this poor girl.

August 24, 2008 @ 1:59 pm | Comment

I think that it is wrong if China has indeed put forward a girl younger than required by the rule. It is against the spirit of fair play. The world is not picking on those girls because they are from China – past gold medallists from gold countries have had they medals revoked, and outstanding athletes will understandably be under the scrutiny of many – after all, it would be unfair to the athletes if the person who won gold won it by breaking the rules. It’s really quite sad that there are countries/coaches who would approve of such breach of rules, and if the story is true, going as far as to falsify the girls official papers. But given that it is very difficult to verify an athlete’s age when the government is willing to falsify their official documents I think sporting groups will have to make a decision about age restrictions in competitive gymnastics.

Raj mentioned that the priority should be the ‘long-term health and physical development’ of the girls. The problem is that many athletes, in doing what they do, suffer from their sports because of the very nature of the sports. Weight lifting, boxing and many sports have a higher probability of causing health issues later in the athletes life. As an athlete though, consider it a decision they must make, and I am sure some at least would not have it any other way. Now one might say that those athletes are legally adults (though who knows when they started their training – it doesn’t take much Googling to see some pre-teen showing some superhuman feats). Well, 16 years old are classified as minors in most countries, still have quite a bit of developing to do. What I am getting at is that a decision needs to be made: in the interest of long term health and physical development, all athletes should at least be legally adult before they can participate in those competitions. But in the interest of the sport, then it does make sense to waive all age restrictions so that those participating can showcase as close to the performance of a lifetime as they can (and for all we know, some of those minor may genuinely want to give the best performance of a lifetime in light of the hard training they’ve had to go through).

I’ve not really taken a definite side on this. I have to admit though, that while the second option sounds might appear morally ‘wrong’, it may well be more practical if we consider that some countries may choose to cheat anyway, and individual countries may choose to impose their own restrictions. Selected gymnasts will always be at the mercy of the training regime and philosophy of the country they represent. I suspect that the starting training age and intensity of a Chinese gymnast will be the same even if it is possible to ensure that those who compete are over 16. Lastly, it does allow a little more flexibility: Mao Asada missed the 2006 Winter Olympic because is was too young by 3 months. I question whether it makes sense to keep obvious talent out of the competition in an event that occurs only once every 4 years for 3 months.

August 25, 2008 @ 12:08 am | Comment

The US and the rest of the world are just jealous of China as a rising power and will do anything to stop it. China should not worry about the western bias, when you are strong, people gets jealous. Each country has its own problems, mind your own business first, before you act like you are some kind of god or police and can judge China. The west has always been aggressive towards China, and now it is time for the west to taste their bitter pill, and the new China will no longer take these insults. Accusing someone faking their age needs some serious proof, I just think most of the fuzz is based on jealousy, rather than facts. I have not seen the Chinese accused of Phelps doing just because he looks “muscular”. Get use to it, China’s age has come and there is no stopping it. Even if some Chinese athletes cheats, so what? No body is perfect, to put down a country with 1.3 billion people by nitpicking negative things is ungraceful and mean.

August 25, 2008 @ 5:32 am | Comment


I agree, I meant the Chinese Gymnastics Federation should be penalized and perhaps the Chinese women’s gymastic team will be barred from say competing in the next tournament and the London Olympics, IF THE ALLEGATION IS PROVEN TRUE.

August 25, 2008 @ 6:27 am | Comment

The bottom line is that many people don’t trust the Central People’s Government. If this happened in most other places, a glance at the passport would have settled it in a moment.

Trust is very hard to establish, and easy to lose.

August 25, 2008 @ 5:43 pm | Comment

Olympic Bodybuilders aren’t known for their scientific genius — they specialize themselves so that they can be, you know, olympic quality athletes. Being an olympian athlete requires such dedication and you are changed because of it forever. Telling talented young girls that they can’t be olympians because they are too young seems to me just as ageist as telling someone he cannot work anymore because he is too old, even if he can do the work of two youngins. Even if it is detrimental to their long term health they can do something with their lives that most people never even have a chance to — prove themselves better than everyone else in the world at something beyond a shadow of a doubt, by winning a gold medal at the olympics.

If the girls want to choose fame and success, why not let them? I’m pretty a country as populous as china can find at least one girl who’s willing and capable of doing this, without forcing her to do anything.

August 26, 2008 @ 12:59 am | Comment

To Dor

Looking at the passports and trusting the Chinese governments is a ludicrous proposition. Don’t pretend to be neutral while you are an agent working for the Chinese government.

To Pffefer@臭狗屁

Don’t talk nut and nationalistically supporting the Chinese government before giving up your foreign passport, or WESTERN PASSPORTS that is. You would still be eating vegetable at max if not because of foreign scholarship and the help of WTO. Look at Beijing during Christmas when expats go back for holidays; it is a dead town with the foot massage girls crying for business.
Tell me that the Chinese Gymnasts are at or above 16. You must be blind.

August 30, 2008 @ 8:22 am | Comment

To Snowman121

When the people of a country are not liked in so many countries from Singapore, Australia, Japan, Korea, Canada, France, Germany, Brazil, to Russia, somethings must seriously be wrong, and not a raw deal. Ponder on morality and honesty, then you will understand why they are not liked. Chinese businessmen prefer to export because they claim it is hard to collect payments from local chinese merchants. Can you deny this reality? Perhaps, this similar disease is already part of your psychic that you are already immune.
We in the free world don’t appreciate scumbags unlike you do.

August 30, 2008 @ 8:36 am | Comment

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