How to report on your enemy’s success: Why is smiling a big deal for China’s Olympic diver?

A seemingly trivial story published on about a Chinese Olympic diver not smiling turned into a minor media incident, compelling this media researcher to make sense of why this happened.

Story and reactions

One of the highlights of the Tokyo Olympic Games during the lockdown was the 14-year-old girl Chinese diver Quan Hongchan’s flawless platform dive. At the time, published a story about this teenage Chinese diver who ‘has not cracked a smile despite her impeccable performance’. According to the story, Quan was ‘poker faced’ and ‘looked devastated after being given a perfect score’. Citing a few tweets, the story concludes that ‘viewers were shocked at Quan’s reaction.’

Response from people on my WeChat circle was visceral. ‘Why on earth is this a news story?’, ‘what the hell is this story about?’ ‘I’m disgusted’. ‘It makes me want to puke’. People fumed while they incredulously reposted to fellow WeChat users.

The reactions among people who are not Chinese Australians were also unfavourable. I asked a dozen of my in-laws to tell me their gut responses to the story. Their responses converged on a sense of bemusement as to why the lack of smile on the diver’s face was newsworthy.

Interestingly, the men I talked to seem to understand why Quan didn’t initially smile. One of them, a former athlete and Olympic hopeful, said, ‘I get why there were no smiles during the event because the job was not done’. Another said, ‘she was not smiling because she was focusing on what’s ahead of her’.

The women I talked to reacted to the story in a gender-specific way. ‘Why are young women always expected to smile?’ ‘I don’t see anyone writing about men not smiling’. One posed this question, ‘would they write a story if an American athlete was not smiling?”

A ‘media incident’

By now, you may say that ‘come on; it’s just a story, and there is no need to read too much into it’. Well, Chinese state media read a lot into it. China’s nationalist paper the Global Times went so far as to publish an editorial in response. ‘The article sparked anger among some Chinese netizens…who criticised this Australian media outlet for slandering Chinese athletes with misinformation and bias’.

The Global Times also connects this story to a report a week earlier in the New York Times, which calls Chinese athletes ‘sports machine[s]’, and ‘China’s sports assembly line’ produces athletes whose single goal was to win gold at any cost.

Being singled out by the Global Times as baddies may be taken as evidence that the story is on to something worth reporting. After all, as Eric Jensen, the founding editor of Saturday Paper said, journalism is the ‘the only industry in the world where being told you were wrong is taken as proof that you’re right’.

What’s remarkable is that this story has turned into a minor ‘media incident’. A couple of days later, South China Morning Post published a piece reporting on Global Times’ response, saying the latter called ‘Australian website’s coverage ‘weird and offensive’ that ‘defamed the teenage diver’.

I don’t think that the Global Times editorial’s charge of ‘defamation’ has legs, but there does seem to be something ‘weird’ about the story, so in what way is it weird?

Calling Edward Said

Trivial as this story is, I believe it inadvertently raises a key journalistic question: how to report the achievement of a country that is frequently portrayed in the media as the enemy in the era of a looming Cold War, even if it’s just a sporting achievement? Or should we report them at all, if we can’t find a ‘suitable’ way to frame it?

What interests me as a media academic is what motivated the decision to write and print this story in the first place: what kind of latent memory, image and sentiment about China or the Chinese did the story need to activate in order for the story to have meaning?

Note that this is a Murdoch-owned website, and assuming that the outlet caters to a particular segment of the readership, what is the website’s projected view about what its readers want to read about China and Chinese people? It seems that an entire range of orientalist ideas and images of Chinese people were being called into service here.

In orientalist thinking, the West does the civilising and the Orient needs to be civilised. The West decides what it wants and needs, and the Orient is available, submissive, deferential, accommodating, and yes, smiling. The union between the Oriental female and the Western masculine is acceptable but always tinged with fear and desire. Think Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon.

In the past, it’s opera, literature, Hollywood and visual arts that did the heavy lifting in constructing orientalism. Now media and social media have taken up the baton.

The piece observes that despite Quan’s perfect dive, her face “told a different story”, but it stops short of telling us what that story is. Instead, it leaves it to the imagination of its intended readers: what could be so sinister or unimaginably bad behind that absence of smile? Child abuse in sports training? Inscrutable Orientals? Despotic coaches and a cruel training regime? Sports machine devoid of human feelings? Athletes produced out of assembly line? Take your pick.

None of these was explicitly said, but the story would not make much sense unless it was decoded within this orientalist framework.