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Two Sides of the Olympic Medal: Eileen Gu’s Gold and Beverly Zhu’s Fall on Weibo

Eileen Gu and Beverly Zhu seem similar in many ways, but their Olympic journey in China turned out so differently.

Manya Koetse

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This week, Chinese social media saw two sides of the Olympic coin. Eileen Gu and Beverly Zhu are both American-born teenagers competing for China in the Olympics, but while Gu was celebrated, Zhu was condemned.

A day after grabbing gold at the Olympics, the 18-year-old Chinese American freestyle skier Gu Ailing (谷爱凌 Eileen Gu) is front-page news in China. She is China’s biggest Olympic social media hit since female swimmer Fu Yuanhui became an online sensation during the Summer Olympics in Rio.

Eileen Gu’s gold medal at the women’s Freeski Big Air final was the third gold medal for China and Gu also became China’s first female gold medalist in snow sports.

Gu is popular for her athletic talent and disarming smile, but the American-born teenager also garnered huge attention online for switching national affiliations and competing for China, a decision she announced in June of 2019. At the time, Gu called the decision “incredibly tough,” writing:

I am extremely thankful for U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Chinese Ski Association for having the vision and belief in me to make my dreams come true. I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringing. The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”

Now, 2.5 years later, Gu has not just won gold, she has also won the hearts of millions of netizens who call her the “snow princess” – the hashtag “Gu Ailing’s Gold Medal” (谷爱凌金牌) received over two billion views on Weibo and the platform’s servers even temporarily went down after Gu’s win (this, by the way, also once happened back in 2017 when Chinese singer and actor Lu Han announced his new relationship).

 

Gu: An Online Sensation and Rolemodel for Girls

 

This week, Gu is all over Chinese social media, with videos and images of her epic win dominating feeds on Weibo and Douyin and an advertisement for Chinese sports brand Anta featuring the medalist popping up everywhere. Chinese super celebrities such as Roy Wang (TFBoys) are drawing even more attention to Gu by publicly congratulating her – Wang’s message to Gu received some 400,000 likes on Tuesday.

On February 8, 520 drones formed a portrait of Gu in the city of Sanya to celebrate her gold medal. A video and images of the moment went viral (#三亚520架无人机庆谷爱凌夺金#).

But there is much more. There’s Gu wearing a panda hat, Gu eating dumplings, Gu saying she’s never been to Hainan (#谷爱凌说自己没有去过海南#), Gu talking about how she handles fear (#谷爱凌谈如何应对恐惧#), and then there’s the viral video of her cooking together with her Chinese grandmother (#谷爱凌姥姥冯工#); almost anything Gu does or says nowadays seems to go viral.

It should be noted that the Olympic athlete was already popular before she snatched the gold medal. According to Chinese domestic consumer research platform CBNData, Gu promoted at least twenty brands and companies in 2021 alone, including Anta Sportswear, Midea, Luckin Coffee, China Mobile and Bank of China. Based on the information regarding Gu’s brand endorsement fees, CBNData estimates the teenager must have made at least 200 million yuan ($31,4 million) over the past year for doing work related to promotions and brand ambassadorship.

Gu Ailing promoted at least twenty different brands in 2021.

For many, Gu is an inspiration. The young athlete is hard-working and smart – she was admitted to Stanford – and she is not afraid to speak her mind when reporters ask her tricky questions.

“Gu Ailing’s positivity gives me strength,” one female Weibo user writes:

She’s dealing with an American upbringing, Chinese ethnic identity, being a girl in extreme sports, public opinions about her nationality, all kinds of people speaking for her, yet she is always outgoing and steady. Really, it doesn’t matter what happens, what matters is what makes you happy. Are you happy in your life? Don’t dwell on loss and regret, ok?

Debates about Gu’s citizenship have played out across international social media over the past few weeks. Since China does not recognize dual nationality, the general assumption is that athletes like Gu who compete under its banner are required to renounce their non-Chinese citizenship, but reporters’ questions regarding Gu’s current citizenship were recurrently avoided, leading to more speculation on whether or not she actually gave up her American passport or not.

On Chinese social media, many thought these discussions were irrelevant, stressing that Gu represented China for the Olympics now and that the issue of her citizenship was only brought up to polarize.

One Weibo user (@远望白洞) wrote:

The people who care too much about what nationality she is only want to criticize her for 1) potentially someday returning to US citizenship and 2) using dual citizenship to get special treatment. Either way, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s her freedom to go back to the US and the positive effect she has on so many young people will not disappear because of it.”

Eileen Gu and her mother, image published by Sohu.com.

That Gu is praised as an example and role model for women also relates to her background. Gu was raised by her Chinese mother, a molecular biology graduate and former ski instructor, and her maternal grandmother, a former official at China’s Ministry of Transport. Not much is known about who her (American) father is, and it seems clear that the upbringing by these two powerful women has contributed to Gu’s determination and drive, and her own ambition to inspire other girls and young women.

 

Beverly Zhu: Olympic Cyber Bullying

 

Just some 48 hours before Gu’s Olympic success, there was the Olympic debut of another US-born athlete representing China. Like Gu, Beverly Zhu is a California-born teenager who changed her citizenship to compete for China during the Winter Olympics. Her parents, both Chinese, moved to the US in the 1990s.

The 19-year-old figure skater announced she would be representing China in September of 2018 and changed her name to Zhu Yi (朱易).

Zhu already was not as popular as Gu on Chinese social media before the Olympics. Her Weibo account has some 110,000 fans, while Gu now has over 4,2 million fans on her personal Weibo page.

But the contrast with her fellow California-born Olympic colleague became even starker when Zhu’s Olympic debut turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. The athlete ended with the lowest score after she crashed into a wall and failed to correctly land two jumps in the women’s singles short program on Sunday, pushing Team China out of the medals – she was almost unable to hold back her tears.

Afterward, she told reporters:

I guess I felt a lot of pressure because I know everybody in China was pretty surprised with the selection for ladies’ singles, and I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do, but unfortunately I didn’t.”

Zhu then fell twice in the free skate on Monday, after which she openly sobbed.

During the week, Zhu was criticized and even ridiculed on Chinese social media. There was the Weibo hashtag “Zhu Yi Cries Again in the Arena” (#朱易再度泪洒冰场#), “Zhu Yi Cries” (#朱易哭了#), and “Zhu Yi Fell” (#朱易摔了#), which was later taken offline by online censors along with some ninety Weibo accounts and hundreds of messages bullying Zhu.

But even after the meanest comments were taken offline, Weibo users still expressed their apparent dislike for Zhu. “If you can’t handle the pressure, what are you doing here?”, some said, with others writing: “What is she crying about? It should be us crying while watching her.”

Zhu is by no means the first Chinese female Olympic athlete to experience cyberbullying. During the Tokyo Olympics, athletes Wang Luyao and Yang Qian were also attacked by netizens, showing just how quickly public sentiment can turn against those who are in the limelight.

Did Zhu receive so much criticism just because of her performance, or is there more behind it? For both Zhu and Gu, the fact that they represented China as American-born teenagers automatically meant more eyes were focused on them already.

While Gu seems carefree in talking to the media, Zhu appears more timid and soft-spoken. This might have contributed to Zhu being not as popular online, especially after Zhu cried after her disappointing performance. When Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) became an overnight online sensation during Rio, it was not her bronze medal that made her popular but her enthusiasm and confidence.

Another reason which perhaps prevented Zhu from becoming more of an idol among the public is the fact that there have been many rumors about how Zhu allegedly did “not deserve” her Olympic spot and those regarding her father’s role. Zhu’s father is a renowned Chinese professor who, along with his daughter’s move, also came back to work at prestigious universities in Beijing. It was rumored that Zhu’s father might have helped his daughter get a spot on the Olympic team. Although the rumor was later later refuted, many people were already prejudiced about the young figure skater.

It’s worth noting that there are also hundreds of Weibo users jumping to Zhu’s defense and those condemning the cyberbullying surrounding her. Just like Gu, she sacrificed a lot and worked very hard to get where she is today, even if it did not lead to her grabbing a medal.

There are also those netizens who remind others that Zhu is just a teenager, as is Gu. Some are already worried about Gu’s sudden rise to fame, too. One netizen (@哭泣的空肚子) wrote:

Fame is a double-edged sword. Your success can be magnified to an extreme, and your mistakes can also be enlarged without boundaries. From now on, she will face the days in which she’ll be carefully walking on the sharp edge of that sword because if she does something that does not conform to what people expect of her, the same people who praise you today will then step on you.”

Perhaps, it is not Zhu Yi but Eileen Gu who will be walking on eggshells for the time to come.

Read more about China and the Olympics here.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China and Covid19

Weibo Discussions: What is the Way Forward for China’s Zero-Covid Policy?

Political commentator Hu Xijin about China’s zero-Covid Policy: ” This fight is bound to be like navigating a boat against the current.”

Manya Koetse

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Over the past few weeks, while various regions across China have been dealing with a surge in new Covid cases and ongoing local lockdowns, there have been more online discussions regarding the future of China’s zero-Covid policy.

Facing another local outbreak and lockdown, people in Shenzhen’s Shawei in the city’s Futian District clashed with local officers on September 26. People were chanting: “Lift the Covid lockdown!”

The well-known Chinese political commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), former editor-in-chief of state tabloid Global Times, published a lengthy post on his Weibo account on Monday, focusing on the current discussions surrounding China’s Covid policies.

Hu Xijin

In his post, Hu explained the perspectives of people on both sides of the Covid debate, and why many people want China to ‘open up’ while there are also those who are still defending China’s prevention and control measures to contain the virus.

Hu also argued that more experts should come forward with suggestions and views based on science in order for the online discourse to focus more on science and rationality rather than letting the discussions be dominated by loud voices on social media.

 

This is a (loose) translation of the full text in Hu Xijin’s post (translation by What’s on Weibo):

 

“The epidemic has had an influence on all Chinese people, and it has affected the face of China’s current economic and social operations in all areas. Recently, however, there have been fewer reasonable discussions on epidemic prevention policies. Many experts have gone silent while the slogans thrown around on the internet are increasing, and they’re all opposing each other. This public opinion environment is evidently not constructive regarding China’s next steps in the fight against the epidemic, and it certainly doesn’t help to create a realistic response to the continuous changes in the epidemic.”

“I’m not an epidemic expert, but I hope to contribute by promoting rational discussions on epidemic prevention. Let me first go through the two main types of views right now of those calling for “liberalization” and those opposing it.”

“The view of the “liberalization” group: it has been proven that Omikron and its variants simply cannot be contained, and there is overwhelming evidence that these variants already have a lower mortality rate than influenza. Lockdowns in various areas, especially the long ones, severely restrict people’s freedom and are detrimental to physical and mental health. The constant “static management”* (静态管理) everywhere has severely impacted the economy and had led to business closures, unemployment, and depression. Long-term lockdowns and control have also led to China being more shut-off and isolated from the rest of the world. In short, they argue that China holding on to a policy of prevention and control along with the rest of the world is a choice that China should and must make.” [*a type of ‘lockdown’ that still allows some essential businesses and public services to stay open.]

“The view of opponents of “liberalization”: they argue that it is a fact that the epidemic is not over, and that there is no certainty that the virus will continue to weaken – there is still a possibility that the virus will become stronger again. The countries that “let go” [of Covid measures] were forced to do so. But if China opens up, all previous efforts might go to waste and we could face an immense wave of hundreds of thousands of deaths; it would create a serious strain on our healthcare and cause a humanitarian disaster. Although China is currently facing short-term difficulties, the past three years of the epidemic have shown that overall the economic costs of China’s epidemic prevention have been relatively low. We must persevere now, and when the time is ripe we won’t be too late to “liberalize” and, considering everything, another six months or so won’t really matter. It is also not necessarily true that the economy will jump back up once we open up. So many countries across the world have opened up but there are few where the economy is actually doing well. When there are viruses everywhere, there will be a lot of households with elderly people and young children that will stay away from public places. In most areas in China, on the other hand, they are going out without any worries, which supports consumption. They say that China is harming itself by isolating from the world, [but] China’s foreign trade has actually increased since the pandemic and not decreased. A part of foreign trade is experiencing temporary and specific challenges but that does not apply to the overall situation and the reality is that the world’s demand for China is growing.”

“It is worth noting that most of those opposing China ‘opening up’ generally also oppose the arbitrary implementation of “static management” and excessive epidemic prevention, arguing that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of epidemic prevention is a manifestation of local officials in epidemic areas trying to protect official bureaucracy. “

“Overall, there is a political atmosphere surrounding the online discussions on epidemic prevention, and the viewpoints of the people whose voices are the loudest are highlighted. I think this is a bad trend, and we should stop it. I believe that experts should come forward more and publish their suggestions to bring the epidemic discussion back to the realm of science and reason. Even if we can’t completely do it, we should strive to do so.”

 

“Countries across the world have collectively lost the battle and have accepted the natural consequences of the Covid pandemic, including deaths and Long Covid. Only China is still fighting.”

 

“In order to advocate [China’s] “liberalization,” we must find reliable answers to some crucial questions. The death rate of Omicron is low, but the infection rate is high, so the overall death total is still not radically reduced – even in America every day a few hundred people are still dying because of it, – how can we solve this problem? When fever and severe cough is all around us, even if it’s not deadly, entire families might fear for the lives of the elderly and their children once they find themselves in such a situation, and everyone will rush to the hospital. How do we prevent our medical systems from becoming overwhelmed? And what’s actually going on regarding Long Covid? The UK has two million cases of Long Covid and the US has around four million cases, it is affecting the quality of life for many people, how do we see this problem? And in case we “open up,” how would it affect the number of people still coming to shopping malls, subway stations, restaurants, and cinemas? China is not like American and European societies, the public’s mental state is relatively fragile. We need experts to come up with credible predictions and measures that can be taken.”

“Those who oppose the easing of preventive and control measures should respond to these kinds of questions: how would we solve the constant ‘static management’ [lockdows] in some regions? How do we address the problems of the travel flow between regions not being smooth and the disruption of supply chains in production areas? Would it be possible for us to achieve, over time, a mature upgrade of the prevention and control system while avoiding widespread lockdowns and obstruction of domestic travel?”

“Omicron is a big problem for humanity, and the reality is that countries across the world have collectively lost the battle and have accepted the natural consequences of the Covid pandemic, including deaths and Long Covid. Only China is still fighting. But this fight is bound to be like navigating a boat against the current. We need to let the whole society grasp the difficulty of this battle, make them understand how hard it is for the country to make “and/and” [both economy and public health-related] strategic decisions to safeguard the interests of 1.4 billion people. There will not be an easy way to solve all the issues and eliminate all systematic problems. China can only constantly weigh in the pros and cons to find the way with the least relative disadvantages. I believe that if we talk things through, although there will always be complaints in the public opinion arena, everyone or at least the majority of people will eventually understand the good intentions and necessity of the country’s strategic decisions, and our society as a collective will continue to keep up with the state policies ahead.”

The post, which received over 55,000 likes, also got many responses.

One popular comment said: “I don’t oppose the epidemic prevention, I oppose how ‘one solution fits all’! As quickly as possible we should push for [local] Health Code apps to recognize each other and stop with making people isolate and stay home in low-risk areas.”

Some people appreciated Hu’s post and were glad that it explicitly stated some issues that are usually not mentioned in official discourse on China’s Covid battle. “Finally someone is admitting that the virus won’t go away,” one commenter said.

But there were also people who thought Hu Xijin was missing some points. One person responded: “The grievances of the people are so deep, yet no official has spoken out, do they think the voices of the people are not important at all?” Another person mentioned: “It’s not that the experts are silent; they are afraid to speak up.” Some asked: “Who has made them go silent?”

 

“Is our epidemic prevention really still about preventing the epidemic?”

 

Another Weibo user mentioned that it is not about control versus freedom in China’s Covid fight, but about excessive measures – not too long ago, news that authorities in Xiamen were also doing Covid tests on fish and crabs made its rounds on Weibo: “Isn’t excessive prevention the biggest waste of energy? They’ve opened up in foreign countries for so long, aren’t they the best example? Don’t you want to believe the people? Why are we still worried about Chinese people having a frail mental state? Let’s hurry up and stop this laughable excessive epidemic prevention, we’re all tired.”

“Is our epidemic prevention really still about preventing the epidemic?” others wondered.

There were many people who agreed with this, and one of the top comments said: “I don’t support opening up completely, but I oppose excessive epidemic control, and this is a view that is held by most Chinese.”

Online discussions on the future of China’s Covid policies first started flaring up during the Shanghai lockdown in April of this year, when people started posing questions on why people who barely show any Covid symptoms should still be quarantined at centralized quarantine locations, fearing cross-infection or re-infection due to the crowded and sometimes chaotic living conditions.

At the time, more Chinese officials and experts started emphasizing the importance of sticking to the “dynamic zero-COVID strategy” as the best way forward for China, meaning rapidly responding to new Covid cases, precise prevention measures, and controlling and extinguishing local outbreaks as fast as possible to avoid further spread of the virus and drastically reduce the number of people getting sick.

In order to “amplify authoritative voices” to weigh in on this kind of discussions, Weibo launched its Hongru Open Media Plan (#鸿儒-媒体开放计划#) earlier in 2022, using it as a platform to highlight ‘expert’ opinions.

China’s leading experts on Covid-19, including the renowned scientists Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), Zhang Wenhong (张文宏), and Li Lanjuan (李兰娟), have published and spoken up about the virus and the epidemic situation in China throughout the years.

In a recent interview, Chinese epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said that Covid-19 is a ‘Type B’ infectious disease that is currently managed as a ‘Type A’ infectious disease in China. Type A includes the plague and cholera, while infectious diseases classified as Type B are less severe and include bird flu, malaria, polio, and AIDS.

Li suggested that the management of Covid-19 would, in time, also shift to a ‘Type B’ management system and that Covid-19 will have less of an impact on people’s lives. A Weibo hashtag related to the topic was later taken offline.

Not long after, a hashtag titled ‘How Long Will ‘Dynamic Zero’ Go On?’ (#动态清零政策将持续多久#) was published on Weibo by China Youth Daily, referring to a press conference on September 7 where this question was asked by a foreign reporter. Although Chang Jile (常继乐), deputy director of the National Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention, did not give a concrete answer to the question, he emphasized that scientific research on Covid-19 is still ongoing and that China’s prevention and control measures are still “the most economical and the most effective.”

In the Weibo comment sections, one person wrote: “Still no answers. How long will this go on?”

Read more about Covid in China here.
Read more about Hu Xijin here.

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by Fusion Medical Animation.

 

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China Media

No Hashtags for Mahsa Amini on Chinese Social Media

“Why is that every time Mahsa Amini is mentioned, it somehow gets linked to America?”

Manya Koetse

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While the death of Mahsa Amini and the unrest in Iran is a major news story worldwide, the incident and its aftermath received relatively little attention in Chinese media, where the narrative is more focused on how Western responses to the issue are intensifying anti-American sentiments within Iran.

Her name in Chinese is written as 玛莎·阿米尼, Mǎshā Āmǐní. Mahsa Amini is the young Iranian woman whose death made international headlines this month and triggered social unrest and fierce protests across Iran for the past ten days, killing at least 41 people.

The 22-year-old Amini was arrested by morality police in Tehran on 16 September for allegedly not wearing her hijab according to the mandatory dress code for women while she was visiting the city together with her family. According to eyewitness accounts, Amini was severely beaten by officers before she collapsed and was taken to the hospital where she died three days later.

The protests following Amani’s death were visible in the streets, but also on social media where Iranian women posted videos of themselves cutting off their hair as a sign of mourning and protest, asking others to help raise awareness on Amini’s death and violence against women amid internet shutdowns in the country.

There were also protests outside of Iran in other places across the world. In London, protesters clashed with police officers during a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy on Monday.

On Chinese social media platform Weibo, Chinese news site The Observer (观察者网) reported Amini’s death and the ensuing protests on September 22, but the hashtag selected to highlight the post did not focus on Amini.

Instead, it emphasized the reaction of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which accused the United States and other Western countries of using the unrest as an opportunity to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs (hashtag: “Iran Denounces the US and other Western Countries #伊朗谴责美西方#).

The hashtag decision is noteworthy and also telling of how the developments in Iran have been reported by Chinese (online) media sources, which evade the topic of anti-government protests and instead focus on pro-regime marches and anti-American sentiments.

On China’s Tiktok, Douyin, as well as on Weibo, the Chinese media outlet iFeng News posted a video showing Iranian pro-government, anti-American protests on September 25, featuring interviews with veiled women speaking out in support of their country and showing “down with America” slogans and people burning the American flag.

In the comment sections, however, people were critical. One of the most popular comments said: “It must have been difficult organizing all these people.” Another person wrote: “Ah now I am starting to understand that it must have been Americans who beat the girl to death for not properly wearing her hijab.”

But there were also Chinese netizens who said that Iran was seeing a “color revolution” (颜色革命) initiated by the West, suggesting that foreign forces, mainly the U.S., are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government.

China Daily also published a video on Douyin in which they featured Iranian political analyst Foad Izadi who said that the demonstrators in Iran could be divided into two groups: one group cared about “a young woman losing her life,” but a second group are people “linked to terrorist organisations based outside Iran.”

Chinese media commentator Zhao Lingmin (赵灵敏) posted a video in which she spoke about the situation in Iran and provided more background information on the history of the country, during which she noted how one Iranian official had supposedly said that “the only two civilizations in Asia worth mentioning are Iran and China.”

Zhao explained how Iran officially became the Islamic Republic in April of 1979 as 98.2% of the Iranian voters voted for the establishment of the republic system in a national referendum.

Videos using the Douyin hashtag “Iran’s Amini” (#伊朗阿米尼) were seemingly taken offline while various images included in Weibo posts about Mahsa Amini and the unrest in Iran were also censored.

“It’s good that we can follow the situation here [on this account], because it’s been removed at others,” one commenter said in response to one post about the many protests following the young woman’s death.

Searches for Amini’s name came up with zero results on the website of Chinese state media outlets CCTV and Xinhua, where the last article about Iran was about how Iranian people think “America can’t be trusted.”

The official Weibo account of the Iranian Embassy in China did post a statement about Amini on September 23, writing that Iranian authorities have ordered an investigation into her tragic death and that the protection of human rights is an intrinsic value to Iran, “unlike those who use ‘human rights’ as a tool to suppress others.” “America must end its economic terrorism instead of shedding crocodile tears,” the last line said. That post received over 11,000 likes.

“Why is that everytime the Mahsa incident is mentioned, it somehow gets linked to America?!” one popular comment said, with another person also responding: “Sure enough, the U.S. gets blamed for everything.”

“So it was the Americans who killed her?” some Chinese netizens sarcastically wrote in response to the post by The Observer, which also mentioned the U.S. in their report of Mahsa’s death.

“I don’t know the exact circumstances, but I support the right of women not to wear a veil,” others said. “Men and women are equal, women should have the freedom to wear what they want and have education and get a job and have some fun,” another Weibo commenter wrote.

One Zhejiang-based Weibo user wrote: “The courage of people marching in the streets for freedom is moving. I wish that women will no longer have their freedom restricted through a hijab. What will the 21st century look like? The answer is still blowing in the wind.”

By Manya Koetse 

 

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