Eileen Gu’s Instagram comment causes fury in China

Olympic gold medal freestyle skier Eileen Gu has upset some social media users with her comments about using VPNs in China.

The "Great Firewall of China" blocks numerous sites including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google and YouTube. The government prefers to use local companies, registered in China, so it can have more control over their operations, tax, and content it deems sensitive.

Throughout the Beijing Winter Olympics, the pro-skier has been uploading inspirational posts about her experience at the games on Instagram, a blocked site, prompting one user to ask how she's allowed to use the restricted platform.

“Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from the mainland cannot, why you got such special treatment as a Chinese citizen. That’s not fair, can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom,” the user wrote.

Ms Gu replied: “Anyone can download a VPN, it’s literally free on the App Store”.

Her response got screenshotted and posted on Chinese social media site Weibo, before quickly going viral, with many users claiming that they can’t use VPNs.

“Literally, I’m not ‘anyone.’ Literally, it’s illegal for me to use a VPN. Literally, it’s not f**king free at all,” one Weibo user responded.

The post was then censored after being shared thousands of times, after which more Weibo users waded in, highlighting the irony. “What is there to brag about a country where [that screenshot] can’t see the light of day?” wrote one user.

VPNs are commonly used in China to access restricted sites, their legality is a grey area. The Chinese government has vowed to block these services, eventually. However, as the Lonely Planet China guidebook states it is "yet to do so," claiming that even the government "uses VPNs".

It is extremely hard to download the majority of VPNs when already on the ground in China, "a VPN must be installed on devices before departing for China," states Lonely Planet.

Are VPN services legal in China? "The short answer is ‘sort of’,” states VPN provider NordVPN. "Using a VPN connection in China has not been publicly declared illegal, but a lot of them are banned in the country, and the government threatens to ban all VPN services for good."

At the heart of the VPN debate is a controversial discussion about Ms Gu's heritage and privilege. Dual citizenship isn't possible in China, and yet the athlete appears to straddle both the east and western worlds, previously stating: “When I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese.”

Many in China still see her as an outsider, and her VPN comment is part of a wider racially charged conversation. One WeChat user accused her of being an "American guest who is maximising her personal interests".