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The newspaper reviewedThe New York TimesThe American story of the Chinese media’s coverage of the 2021 doping case of Chinese athletes.

According to the newspaper, Chinese state media and social media have been virtually silent about the 23 swimmers who tested positive for doping in a case that has been widely discussed abroad, including in the US Congress.

The government has mobilized its propaganda apparatus in state-owned newspapers, television commentators and social media accounts to defend the swimmers and deflect criticism of China’s sports system, the newspaper reported.

In April, 23 Chinese swimmers tested positive for the heart stimulant trimetazidine, which can boost athletes’ performance, ahead of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, which were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) did not punish them after accepting the Chinese authorities’ argument that the positive results were due to food contamination.

China will send 11 of the swimmers implicated in the doping scandal to the Paris Olympics, which begin later this month.

Swimming is one of the most popular sports in China, and Beijing has invested heavily in it over the past decades to transform the country into an Olympic powerhouse.

China has denied allegations of wrongdoing. It has long sought to clean up its sports sector, stepping up testing after doping scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s.

That makes the allegations, according to the New York Times, of a cover-up particularly embarrassing for China, where sports competition plays a major role in polishing the image of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Censorship comparable to sensitive issues

“There is no media coverage of this in China, which is very different from before when other Chinese athletes were accused of doping,” said Haozhou Bo, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton who studies sports in China.

Officials likely hope the story, which was published by The New York Times in April, ends before the Olympics so as not to distract the Chinese public or the Chinese swimming team, Haozhou added.

He suggested this might explain China’s restrained response. The swimmers themselves made no public comments.

The New York Times and Germany’s ARD reported in April that 23 Chinese swimmers had tested positive in domestic competitions in late 2020 and early 2021.

Chinese authorities defended the athletes, claiming they had inadvertently consumed the substance through contaminated meat, without taking any disciplinary action, according to the report.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said WADA and the Chinese Anti-Doping Authority “ignored these positive results” and described the case as a “potential cover-up”.

Chinese news reports quoted statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying the country has a zero-tolerance policy on doping, as well as statements from China’s anti-doping agency, Chinada, which disputed the Times’ reports and accused the newspaper of violating “media ethics and etiquette.”

The only exception was an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, which accused rival nations of deliberately “manipulating the doping issue” and “smearing China’s swimming program.”

The level of censorship around the current dispute over the 23 swimmers is similar to what might be applied to discussions of much more sensitive topics, said Xiao Qiang, an expert on Chinese censorship at the University of California.

Such topics, Xiao continued, include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters, and elections in Taiwan, a de facto independent democratic island claimed by Beijing.

He noted that this is the first time that censorship has imposed a blanket ban on online comments critical of athletes accused of doping.

It comes at a bad time for China’s top sporting body, the General Administration of Sport, which oversees the Chinese Olympic Committee. In May, China announced that the body’s former president, Guo Zhongwen, was under investigation for corruption.

The New York Times revealed earlier this month that three of the 23 swimmers had tested positive for another performance-enhancing drug several years ago.

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