Media & Culture

Fu Yuanhui

The swimmer who showed the world how powerful Chinese soft power can be.


Stilted speeches, staged presentations, dancing minorities in Potemkin villages — Chinese authorities have attempted to impress the world with soft-power socialism, believing that cultural influence, like the economy, works best when directed from the top. Too often, those efforts have flopped. But during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, swimmer Fu Yuanhui showed what can happen when Chinese people are simply allowed to be themselves. The swimmer’s unabashed joy at learning she’d performed better than she first thought in the semifinals of the 100-meter backstroke and her exuberant facial expressions throughout the Games made her a global internet darling. Women in both China and the United States expressed admiration for Fu after she casually mentioned in an interview that she had been menstruating during a race, breaking an unspoken taboo among female athletes at the Olympics and elsewhere.

“The Olympic swimmer did wonders for China’s image among mainstream Americans,” Rob Schmitz, author of Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, told


. “Her goofiness and refreshing candor at the Rio games won the hearts of people around the world, outperforming billions of dollars’ worth of soft power propaganda from Beijing."

(Photo credit: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

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