China’s early press coverage of “secret weapon” He Kexin

By David Bandurski — China’s female Olympic gymnastics team is now coming under intense pressure as evidence mounts that champion gymnast He Kexin (何可欣) is below the age of eligibility for Olympic competition in the event. The evidence against He’s eligibility includes online news coverage by China Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency, which Chinese officials are now saying is inaccurate.

But as Berkeley’s China Digital Times has noted, a number of Chinese newspaper articles last year and early this year reported He’s age as 13. In trying to build a credible case for the gymnast’s eligibility, Chinese officials will find themselves denying a series of independent Chinese news reports.

We’ll begin with the official Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, which reported on November 3, 2007 (possibly the same source as the online Xinhua News Agency article) that “13 year-old He Kexin” successfully completed an uneven bar routine of high difficulty.

The article appeared at the top of page 7 of that day’s edition of People’s Daily, under the headline, “Cooly Awaiting the Achievements of our Newcomers.”

pd-pg-7-november-3-2008.JPG

[Page 7 of the November 3, 2007, edition of the official People's Daily, with article reporting He Kexin's age as 13.]

The first two-thirds of the People’s Daily article in Chinese follow, the last paragraph including the sentence about He’s age (highlighted in bold):

冷静看待新人成长

年轻选手在第六届全国城运会上捷报频传,国家体育总局副局长肖天提醒—本报记者汪大昭在结束了大部分场次的比赛后,第六届全国城运会已近尾声。如何看待和评价我国竞技体育后备力量的表现,事关城运会办赛宗旨。记者就此采访了组委会副主任、国家体育总局副局长肖天。

肖天说,参加本届城运会的74个代表团中,已有43个代表团获得了金牌,58个代表团获得了奖牌,70个代表团有运动员打进前八名。奥运会冠军朱启南在10米气步枪射击中,以703.7环的成绩打破李杰7年前创造的全国纪录,超过世界纪录0.6环。女子400米混合泳李玄旭游出4分37秒56,这一成绩排在世界第六。男子举重56公斤级黎立志和陶劲总成绩286公斤,超过今年世界锦标赛冠军成绩3公斤。任龙云在田径比赛中跑出28分08秒64的成绩,打破了男子万米全国纪录。

回顾城运会比赛,肖天认为,一批优秀的年轻选手表现出敢打敢拼的斗志和较好的基本功,他们在城运会上脱颖而出,显示出后备人才的发展潜力。17岁的丁宁战胜世界冠军郭跃和李晓霞,夺得乒乓球女单冠军。13岁的何可欣在女子体操比赛中出色地完成高低杠“李姮空翻”。国手张轶和小将仲春婵在女子10米气步枪射击资格赛中,都以400环的满环成绩平了世界纪录。年轻选手在射箭女子个人赛中发起挑战,使5名国家队运动员无一人进入八强。13岁的李玄旭夺得女子游泳3枚金牌。19岁的陈锦燕获得女子花剑冠军,使所有对手的得分都没能超过9分。我国乒乓球、羽毛球、跳水、体操等优势项目人才济济,梯队建设扎实,城运会比赛可以看作世界同年龄段最高水平的竞争。田径、游泳、水上等基础大项新人成长,部分集体项目涌现出新秀,人才储备有所改观。

(本报武汉11月1日电)

Just five days after the People’s Daily report, a separate news feature appeared on page 19 of Tianjin’s Jin Wan Bao introducing up and coming Olympic stars.

jinwanbao-page.JPG

[Page 19 of the November 8, 2007, edition of Jin Wan Bao.]

He Kexin was included among the list of 10 athletes to watch, the first line identifying her clearly as “13 year-old competitor He Kexin.” The following is a close up of the right-hand section of that article:

he-kexin-blowup.JPG

Less than a month later, on December 2, 2007, the commercial Beijing Evening News reported independently that He Kexin’s age was 13. The report, which bears the byline of journalist Liu Xiaoxing (刘晓星) and does not come from Xinhua, begins:

As the Olympic Games draw closer, China’s gymnastics team has begun active preparations for competition, and coach Zhang Peiwen (张佩文) says the men’s team’s old leader Li Xiaopeng (李小鹏) has returned to form, and that the female team has reconsolidated its strength on the uneven bars, with 13 year-old junior team member He Kexin possibly to become the secret weapon at the Olympics.

The article repeats further down: “The ‘secret weapon’ Zhang Peiwen refers to is recently emerged star He Kexin. This 13 year-old junior team member can not only complete a [difficult manouever/"李娅空翻"], but displays a steadiness in performance inconsistent with her age.”

On January 22, 2008, the Legal Evening Post, a spin-off of Beijing Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Beijing chapter of the Chinese Communist Youth League, ran an interview with one of China’s gymnastics coaches. The run-up to the Q&A read:

“Don’t rush yourself. Wait ’till your cough is settled and then do [your routine]!” This reporter observed practice on the balance beam at the training facility as 13 year-old junior team member He Kexin prepared for her routine and was suddenly interrupted by a fit of coughing . . .

By March, everything seem to change. All at once, Chinese-language news reports on China’s Olympic gymnastics team, including one from Beijing Daily on March 8, 2008, were no longer talking about “13 -year-old junior member He Kexin” but about “15 year-old junior member He Kexin.”

FURTHER READING:
How Old Are the Chinese Female Gymnasts?” ESWN, August 15, 2008
The Chinese Gymnasts: Age Questions Remain,” TIME, August 13, 2008
Scandal of the Ages,” David Flumenbaum, Huffington Post, August 14, 2008
One More Olympic Secret: How Old is He Kexin?” China Digital Times, August 14, 2008
The Olympic’s Age-Old Problem,” Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports, August 15, 2008

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 15, 2008, 3:15pm HK]

38 Comments to “China’s early press coverage of “secret weapon” He Kexin”

  1. [...] 要么体操队造假,同时教唆小朋友说谎 [...]

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  3. Lau chek says:

    Why dwell on the age issue, the game is over, everyone learn a lesson. Go back to prepare for the next game, next challenge in life.
    China is charging ahead, don’t get left behind. One word of cautious though, stay away from table tennis, badminton, diving, weight lifting if you cannot stomach loosing to Asian, and that is for now. In longer term, you might want to stay away from all games and stay home.

  4. [...] original case against He stemmed largely from Chinese press reports, both state-run and independent, that gave her age as 13 in the run up to the Games, and therefore below the minimum age of 16 [...]

  5. [...] excellent China Media Project based in Hong Kong University has put up an post examining the contradictory reporting in the Chinese press of the age of China’s [...]

  6. Hello Marlene,
    Yes, you’re right. Bela Karolyi was famously Nadia Comaneci’s coach, and then an American Olympics gymnastics coach — but that was before. His wife, with whom he has long collaborated, is the current coach. But, unfortunately, I think most Chinese will lump them together (as I just did! mea culpa) as being obnoxious Westerners / Americans picking on the Chinese out of jealousy. The name-calling unfortunately does not help the case of those just trying to dig out the truth.
    Black and White Cat — I do remember reading something about the old passports, but now I cannot seem to find the link. Also, that was quite early on in this debate. And the passport issue seems to be overtaken by the “disappearing” online evidence issue. The latest report I read said that both old and new passports were recently submitted to the authorities, and that they were both OK.
    It’s so hard trying to figure out what is true and untrue in this case.

  7. Marlene says:

    To Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, the person from Hong Kong:

    It was Bela Karoly who called them babies. He is not the coach, he’s been retired for sometime. The coach is Marta Karoly, his wife. He is only a guest of the commentator.

  8. cat says:

    @Joyce and 巴金, you both say that He Kexin’s old passport stated a different date of birth. I can’t find any reports that back that up. Can you give your sources for this please?

  9. Gordon says:

    The main arguments I’ve seen for the age requirements are the concerns about younger gymnasts being pushed to endure potentially dangerous training, coupled with the flexibility advantage that goes with being younger and lighter.

  10. Bootsie says:

    I don’t understand how having a 13 or 14 yr old girl could be seen as cheating anyway, our “girls” were older…therefore more mature, I actually see having a younger athlete as a minus NOT a plus. I have been around a lot of 13 yr old girls, mine and their silly friends. If you’d like to complain about the way some of the inexperienced judges saw the routines that is maybe a more valid argument. None the less we lost and whatever happened to teaching our children life isn’t always fair…. be a good sport anyway! THEY ARE … WE AREN”T

  11. Dave says:

    November 3, 2007, He is reported as 13. Extrapolated birthdate: 1-1-1994.On March 8, 2008, He is reported to be 15. Extrapolated birthdate: 1-1-1993. In August, 2008, He is said to be 16. Extrapolated birthdate: 1-1-1992.

    If this young lady isn’t careful, she will be the oldest person in China by the time she enters university!

    Serious suggestion: at all future international events, photograph the competitor AND their passport (obviously in such manner that it can be read). When someone suddenly gains a year or two, evidence is readily available.

  12. [...] from the Xinhua News Agency describing He Kexin as 13 years old. And on the same day (courtesy of The University of Hong Kong’s “China Media Project”), the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily also reported that He was [...]

  13. [...] excellent China Media Project analyzed and translated some pre-Olympics Chinese press coverage of some of He Kexin here. The  highlighted reports, including one by the Communist Party’s [...]

  14. [...] et_tile=1; document.write(”); Nieuwe olympische sport22-08-2008 om 04:50 door Chinaman Nieuwe Olympische sport: verouderen China, kinderen, olympische spelen, Waan v/d Dag Terug naar het [...]

  15. [...] Olympic competition. China wasn’t slick enough to scrub their cheating ways. China Media Project China Media Project Blog Archive China’s early press coverage of “secret weapon” H… posted two more articles from the China press (on top of the three previously mentioned articles [...]

  16. Spelunker says:

    BREAKING NEWS!
    Victory for rational thinkers like David Bandurski and Spelunker:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/2008olympics/2008/08/21/2008-08-21_ioc_launches_probe_into_possible_underag.html

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/olympics/article4583174.ece

    Thank you, David, for your valuable contribution!

  17. cv says:

    Communist nations have a long history of cheating and bias what else did the IOC expect?

  18. Dao's BLOG says:

    [...] and web posts of China were digged out by Chinese bloggers and then translated in English, like this, as proof that she is actually 2 years younger that what her recent passport stated, which was used [...]

  19. Radium says:

    It is very easy to find out the fact.

    Everyone had a childhood before she was enrolled in a gymnastic training organization. He Kexin’s parents and elementary school has been exposed in front of the media. So a reporter can just interview her parents and/or the teachers of the school and ask them to provide a few names of He’s classmates. Then you figure out the current ages of her classmates. They could never be all changed to 16 if He had been. In case most of her elementary school classmates are now enrolled in 8th grade in middle school, He is 14 years old. If most of them have been in high school, He is 16 years old obviously.

    Reporters, rather than digging old newspapers which might have just copied from the same mistaken origin, why not doing a few more detective works among her friends and classmates?

  20. [...] Proof Chinese Cheated Gymnist’s Age August 19, 2008 Posted by tkcollier in In The News, Sports. Tags: China, Olympic trackback China Media Project » Blog Archive » China’s early press coverage of “secret weapon” He Kexi…. [...]

  21. Dumb@ss says:

    lucky lenny you [blank], the media brought this age misrepresentation issue long before the games even [blank] started. the american women are not complaining that they didnt win, by far the chinese were better that night, however it seems that they didnt follow the rules. So go [blank] you [blank]
    [NOTE: Expletives have been deleted from both the head and tail of this post. We appreciate the sharing of views here, even passionate ones, but personal attacks are not helpful or welcome. Best, David]

  22. joe g says:

    great article.. i’m pretty much convinced now.

  23. 巴金 says:

    Why didn’t He Kexin correct her old Chinese passport, especially since she kept it for a many years, that is until right before the Olympic Games?

    Does it really take years to see a mistake in your personal official government documents?

    Or was it just a matter of national interest, in which the Communist Party decided to lie about her age, so as appear great?

    Now, He Kexin, will pay the dear price of never being able to tell her real age while in China. As everyone knows that would reflect upon the Communist Party losing face for it.

    That’s how the Communist Party operates, taking away the Chinese work, our talent for their own benefit.

    and YES, real Chinese people wouldn’t be turned away, told there are no seats available at the Olympic Games for them to attend too!

    Shame on the CCP!

  24. 戴秉国 says:

    On July 13th 2001 during the 112th IOC plenary meeting Beijing was entitled to host the Olympic Games. The Chinese authorities promised the IOC and international community concrete improvements in human rights in order to win the 2008 Olympics for Beijing.

    How has Beijing demonstrated their concrete improvements such as:

    1. The Falun Gong spiritual movement by harvesting organs of living Falun Gong practitioners?
    2. Tibet and the Dalai Lama?
    3. Taiwan Independence?
    4. Uyghurs in Xinjiang province?
    5. The repression of Journalists and the Media?
    6. Censorship, filtering, blocking information on the Internet by China?

    Illegal arrests, forced labor camps, brainwashing centers, organ harvesting, torture, murder, forced abortions, child labor, no freedom of press, internet blockades, widespread corruption and nepotism. This is Beijing 2008.

    Xu Kangang recommended that the Committee members of the Unites States Congressional-Executive Commission on China to read the book “Nine Commentaries on the Communist party” to fully understand the Communist Partyˇs history of deception and persecution.

    Anyone who wants to make money in China has to surrender to the political power of the Chinese Communist Party.

    Clearly, the all-pervading aim of the Chinese regime is not the conversion of the PRC into a pluralistic political system with a free market economy modeled after, and integrated with, Western institutions. Rather, its purpose is to perpetuate the Communist Party’s rule.

    What difference does it make if older authoritarians are replaced by younger, technically trained or even capitalist authoritarians?

    The truth is the American economy has become as dependent on import of Chinese products as it has on Saudi oil. As with Saudi oil, it only makes sense to see that near exclusive dependence on import of Chinese products (no matter how cheap), is not a healthy habit, and that America should in both cases start looking for alternate sources for such products. And it further makes sense to ensure that such sources should, as far as possible, not originate from, and not financially benefit, countries that are openly or furtively working to undermine democracy and open society.

    The Communist Party counts on rapid economic growth as the main source of its legitimacy. Red China, Inc. it’s Politburo is the all-powerful board of directors.

    Does it matter if we present China to the West the way the Party leadership must like us to present China, providing narrow answers to our self-censored research questions and offering a sanitized picture of China’s political system?

    At what point, and through what channels, will the Party leadership with its different views of human rights and the citizens’ rights affect our choices of political organization and political freedoms in the West?

    At whose expense will China’s rise come?

  25. @ lucky lenny
    The Associated Press ran a report about this in early August — Aug 3 or 4? Anyway, long before the U.S. knew whether or not it would win.
    I think the U.S. team coach’s comments were awful — calling them babies and making fun of them.
    However, I think there has been international concerns about all sorts of things, like doping and cheating. Reports on this are largely to make sure no country is lying or doing the things they vowed not to do during the Opening Ceremony.
    I have a hard time believing that several newspapers all made exactly the same mistake.
    Also, I read that, while He’s current passport is correct, her old one had a “typo” that made her younger.
    Hmmm, lots of “typos” and mistakes going on.
    BTW, I’m not American.

  26. Kevin says:

    lucky lenny:

    they did not start to doubt their ages AFTER the win, please note that this issue was raised by americans BEFORE the games even started as can be seen from here:

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/olympics/2008-07/28/content_6883200.htm

  27. fsc says:

    The Chinese reports are definitely inconsistent as see from:

    http://zonaeuropa.com/200808b.brief.htm#020

  28. David says:

    Lucky Lenny:

    I have to confess that before I read your comment I hadn’t thought of He’s age controversy as primarily a question of winning or losing, or where the gold really belongs. Perhaps that is naive of me — and perhaps that is the critical issue for many — but that seems the most petty lesson to take away from this.

    Isn’t this about He Kexin? Isn’t it a problem if an underage athlete is pressed into competing at this level against international rules?

    Best,
    David

  29. xiao shang says:

    If He really is underage, the implications must be huge. It would mean that her proof of age documents had been faked by the Chinese team, possibly with collusion from the agencies that issued the documents. But i think this is the kind of case where the truth will never really be known.

  30. David says:

    Blogger812:

    Yes, one certainly cannot be sure that Beijing Evening News did not simply repeat what it had seen in, for example, the Xinhua News Agency article. None of these news articles can be seen as conclusive, but they naturally raise doubts. My point about the age being reported “independently” says nothing more than that in each case the article carried a byline, which suggests this was not a single error in, for example, a single wire story multiplied over several media.

    Imagine that a similar “fact” is reported in U.S. newspapers about a member of the U.S. gymnastics team. If all of these arise from the same wire report from the Associated Press we can suppose a single AP reporter got it wrong from the start. However, if several regional papers (say, the NYT, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe) all report the same “fact” in stories done by their own reporters, all of whom have direct access to the athletes and coaches (as in the interview cited above), then the question is more complicated.

    Best,
    David

  31. Blogger812 says:

    How can one be sure that Beijing Evening News reported independently of He Kexin’s age? Can’t a journalist be lazy and not actually cite certain non-controversial (at that time) information such as age that is not checked independently? I see this as a false rumor disseminating in Chinese media because of the bad ethics and lack of fact checking practice.

  32. lucky lenny says:

    Seems like every Olympian and their coach complains if they don’t win – they should give a medal for complaining. The USA complains the most and deserves the gold. Never mind that the US female gymnasts fell several times and didn’t perform their best – just blame the other team for doing better. If they spoke up about the age before the game, I would not blame them for complaining, but it’s only after they lost that they start whining like sore losers. Even if they weren’t 16, doped up, or even used voodoo – they still lost – Complain, complain, complain – I’m embarrassed to be an American when I see them bitch and whine – you lost – get over it – and now I will stop complaining.

  33. Inst says:

    Can an independent source please measure the girl’s telomeres?

  34. Spelunker says:

    By the way, on March 23, 2008 China Daily was still saying that He Kexin’s age is 14. Now the original has been edited but the Google cache remains:

    http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:A5YfIIsOJjQJ:www.chinadaily.com.cn/olympics/2008-05/23/content_6707927.htm+%22He+Kexin%22+May+23&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=11&gl=us

    China.org.cn has the same article which remains unedited today:

    http://www.china.org.cn/olympics/news/2008-05/23/content_15422122.htm

  35. Spelunker says:

    I hope an intelligent journalist in Beijing brings Mr. Bandurski’s article to the next Olympic press conference and opens their laptop in front of the IOC.
    This method of presenting evidence would be more effective than asking He Kexin what she did on her 15th birthday.

  36. [...] [UPDATE: David Bandurski at China Media Project provides a solid round-up of the Chinese media coverage of the strange case of H....] [...]

  37. [...] the ages of some of the girls on China's Olympic gymnastics team, specifically He Kexin and a fair amount of references to keep it [...]

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