Australia is the biggest hurter of China’s feelings of the moment

Mack in the middle.
Mack in the middle.
Image: AP/Matt Slocum
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After Sweden, the US, the Philippines, and South Korea (paywall), the latest country to hurt China’s feelings is Australia.

China’s state media and netizens have been hurling a wide range of abuse at Australia, after Australian swimmer Mack Horton beat China’s Sun Yang at the 400-m freestyle swimming race at the Olympics on Saturday (Aug. 6). In a press conference after the competition, Horton, who obtained Australia’s first gold in the tournament, referred to Sun by saying that he did not have “time or respect for drug cheats.”

Sun burst into tears during the press conference, saying that “on the competition stage, every athlete deserves to be respected and there’s no need to use these sorts of cheap tricks.”

Horton was referring to a three-month ban imposed on Sun in 2014 after he tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance which he said he was taking as treatment for a chronic heart problem.

Chinese viewers have reacted with unbridled fury at Horton’s remarks, turning the rivalry into an all-out food-fight played out on social media.

State newswire Xinhua reacted angrily with a piece saying that China’s Olympic swimming team has demanded an apology from Horton after his “malicious personal attack” on Sun. Chinese swim team manager Xu Qi was quoted as saying that Horton’s “inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers. It is proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing. We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer.”

The Global Times, a tabloid-like state-backed paper known for its incendiary comments, delivered the sharpest blow against Australia, calling it “a country at the fringes of civilization” and noting its history as a British penal colony.

We don’t know if it is Horton who is silly or it’s the Australian media that is evil, or perhaps Australia just has a different moral standard. The message sent is abnormal and aberrant.

The People’s Daily reported that the International Olympic Committee plans to “look into” Horton’s comments. Its story cited IOC spokesperson Mark Adams as saying that “I didn’t know the incident. I need to look into it.”

On Chinese social media, the hashtags “Sun Yang don’t cry,” “Horton is insulting Sun Yang,” and “Horton must apologize to Sun Yang” are trending. One user said (in Chinese) he wished Horton “the best of luck at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.” After Chinese internet users inundated Horton’s Instagram account with comments, the swimmer disabled comments. 

Also in the crosshairs was Australian broadcaster Seven Network, which according to Xinhua apologized “unreservedly” to Chinese-Australians for two gaffes. First, it cut to a commercial break during China’s entrance in the opening ceremony. Second, it put Chile’s flag next to China’s name in a graphic.

Beyond the sporting arena, Xinhua also published a story today (Aug. 8) warning that Melbourne could lose its “most liveable city” accolade, citing comments from an academic at Melbourne’s RMIT University given to local media—though the piece does note the city has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Global Liveability Ranking” index for five years in a row.

Sino-Australian relations have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, even without the poolside spat. In a joint statement with Japan and the US, Canberra expressed support for an international tribunal’s ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping territorial claims to the South China Sea. In response the Global Times labeled Australia as “one of the most delirious countries” and a “paper cat.” China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Xinhua also reminded readers that public sentiment against Chinese investment in Australia was evidence of its “cold-war mentality” in trade.

The war of words prompted Chinese cartoonist and satirist Baiducao, who lives in Australia, to create a fake screenshot of a televised confession and apology by Horton as if it were done via Skype to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, in an apparent attempt to poke fun at the wave of forced confessions by Chinese activists of late.

The graphic shows Horton labeled as a “suspected criminal” for “hurting the feelings of China’s delicate glass hearts.”

The social media spat continues, but, the Global Times assured readers, “It’s not a big deal to us.”