Two cycling sprint champions, Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi, have kicked off a social media civil war in China after wearing badges featuring a silhouette of the country’s modern founder and former leader Mao Zedong at the podium.
In an uncharacteristic move, the Chinese state media has backtracked fast after initially celebrating the controversial display of pride in the authoritarian whose policies led to the deaths of up to 45 million people. The Olympic team also back down promising it would not happen again, according to International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams as the IOC carried out an investigation into a possible breach of article 50 of the Olympic Charter which prohibits political, religious, or racial propaganda.
But the backtracking has appalled many young people in China, where Mao has seen a recent surge in popularity. They turned on the “weak” authorities, demanding more pride in the country’s history, putting President Xi Jinping on the back foot.
The Chinese national newspaper Global Times celebrated the two cyclists’ gesture at first by posting a photo and writing “Look! Chairman Mao is on the chest of champions.” The post soon grabbed the attention of the newspaper’s 30 million Weibo followers. Many social media users were thrilled to see young Chinese athletes paying tribute to China’s leader and history. They also resurfaced a profile picture of another badminton gold medalist featuring Mao’s statue in the background and photos of Mao’s paraphernalia.
“I am so happy to see more and more young people appreciating Chairman Mao these years,” one user wrote. “The badges shine brighter than the gold medals,” another commented.
But six hours and more than 10,000 likes later, Global Times deleted the post and took down a similar tweet it has on Twitter. Online users noted that Weibo’s host site Sina delayed related posts from publishing on the platform. Several official accounts also took down shared content related to the matter.
China’s national broadcaster CCTV later edited out the badges from the jackets of the two athletes during a replay of the medal ceremony. Many audiences caught the detail and criticized the move as “pathetic.”
“If this is true, it’s a national shame,” said one commenter who expressed disbelief over the Chinese Olympic Committee’s subdued reaction to the IOC probe.
“Are they afraid of the imperialist paper tiger?” an online commentator asked. “The IOC represents capitalistic institutions, always serving the capitalists,” one post read. “Let’s host a Communist International Games,” another agreed.
Chinese Olympians have long believed that the spirit of Mao could bring them luck and tried to channel the controversial figure’s vitality by wearing Mao pins, visiting his hometown, paying respect to his statues prior to the Games, and studying his poetry and proverbs.
Badges bearing Mao’s head were worn by hundreds of millions of people during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Even though the pins are not as popular nowadays, Mao’s legacy is deeply ingrained in China’s society 40 years after his death. As the founder of modern China and the Chinese Communist Party, Mao remains a central figure in China’s national narrative and the source of legitimacy for the party, despite being responsible for political violence that killed millions in China.
Thanks to President Xi’s efforts, Mao is viewed more favorably now than a decade ago. While some in China take the Western view that Mao was a vicious dictator, others see him as the symbol of equality. In fact, as China’s social structure becomes more rigid and economic growth slows, many leftists and young people have embraced Mao to make sense of their daily struggles and follow his footsteps in changing society. By trying to cultivate a Mao-like charisma without propagating the Communist agenda, Xi has portrayed Mao as the leader who laid the groundwork to make China a rich and influential country on the international stage.
The IOC’s investigation triggered waves of protests on Chinese social media, accusing the organization of targeting China and applying a double standard, especially after it suspended an investigation into U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders, who crossed her arms into an X shape when collecting a silver medal. Adding to the anger was Chinese officials’ subdued compliance and national media’s change of tone from celebration to silence.
The contrast between a muted official response and the public’s indignation online reflects Chinese government’s dilemma in managing its strained reputation abroad and rampant nationalism at home. In the past decade, China has adopted a “wolf warrior” tactic—named after a Rambo-like nationalistic Chinese film franchise—as Chinese diplomats and government officials aggressively defend the CCP’s policies, most often on Western social media platforms banned in China. Sometimes, screenshots of these combative exchanges circle back inside the Great Fire Wall and receive rounds of applause from Chinese internet users.
The approach has dampened China’s global image. As a result, the Chinese president has tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to rein in the country’s “wolf warriors” and dial down aggressive diplomacy. In June, Xi told senior party leaders that they must create a “reliable, admirable, and respectable” country, and should “be open and confident, but also modest and humble.”
However, emboldened by the country’s meteoric rise on the global stage in recent years, much of China’s population may perceive the toning down as sucking up to the West.
“A bunch of weak bones,” one user wrote, referring to the Olympic committees and CCTV. “The bourgeoisie and its media are weak and shameless.”