In the span of a week, three American-born athletes of Chinese descent have been thrust into the spotlight at the Beijing Winter Olympics – to very different reactions in China.
All three were trained in the United States and are only a few years apart in age, but their paths diverged on the way to the Games. While figure skater Nathan Chen is competing for Team USA, freestyle skier Eileen Gu and figure skater Zhu Yi opted to compete for China.
Gu and Chen both won gold, while Zhu faltered on the ice during two consecutive showings. The public responses they’ve received in the Olympic host nation also took different turns.
Gu was hailed as a national hero, winning hearts, fame and fortune; Zhu was abused online, accused of bringing “shame” to her adopted country; and Chen was labeled a “traitor,” coming under nationalistic wrath for “insulting China.”
The young athletes have found themselves embroiled in deteriorating US-China relations, during one of the most divisive, tightly controlled and politically fraught Olympic Games in history.
Once seen as cultural ambassadors who could help build bridges between the two countries, Americans of Chinese descent are now subject to heightened scrutiny – left to straddle political fault lines on both sides.
In the cases of Gu, Zhu and Chen, their vastly different receptions in China also raise the question of what it takes to be accepted as “Chinese” – in a country that has grown ever more confident, yet less politically and culturally tolerant, since it last hosted the Games in 2008.
And even someone as successful and popular as Gu cannot entirely evade questions about her allegiance – and how much she really understands the country she now represents.
The ‘pride of China’
When Gu, the freeski prodigy, won a gold medal for China in Tuesday’s big air competition, adulation for her literally crashed China’s largest social media platform, as tens of millions rushed to celebrate her victory online.
She has been held up as the “pride of China” by many online – and emblematic of a perceived victory over America. For decades, China’s brightest and best have flocked to the US to pursue the American dream. And now, an Olympic medal-winning talent, born and trained in America, has chosen to represent China. To some, that’s a resounding affirmation of the country’s rising strength and power.
It is not hard to see why Gu – known as Gu Ailing in China – was instantly embraced as a national darling.
At 18, the San Francisco native is already the embodiment of success: She is a world champion skier, a straight-A student on her way to Stanford, and a fashion model representing brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.
Young Chinese fans marvel at her exuberant confidence and rush to compliment her empathy and compassion. Many took notice when she knelt on the snowy floor to console a sobbing rival.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, Gu is referred to as “Miss Perfect,” excelling in everything she does (including playing the piano). She is followed by 4 million fans and worshiped as a “super idol,” with her face splashed across billboards, commercials and magazine covers.
As an influencer, Gu is admired for her fashion choices and what many Chinese social media users call her “biracial beauty.” On Xiaohongshu, China’s version of Instagram, beauty influencers rush to upload makeup tutorials on how to mimic Gu’s “biracial looks.”
And despite being born and raised in California, she speaks fluent Mandarin with a hearty Beijing accent, which took many by surprise and endeared her even more to the public.
Gu has proudly embraced her cultural heritage, having grown up spending most of her summers visiting Beijing, her mother’s hometown. But she has repeatedly dodged questions about her citizenship while highlighting her dual identity, often saying: “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the US, I’m American.”
But her Olympic victory has amplified her fame – and led to increased public scrutiny.
During Tuesday’s medal ceremony, Gu was spotted on television not singing China’s national anthem when the Chinese flag was being raised. It immediately drew criticism, although many quickly came to her defense.
“It doesn’t really matter whether she sings the national anthem or not. What matters is that the national anthem was played because of her and the national flag was raised because of her,” said one comment on Weibo. The hashtag “Gu Ailing National Anthem” was subsequently censored.
Earlier in the day, Gu generated heated online debate with a reply she reportedly made to a comment on one of her Instagram posts.
“Why can you use Instagram and millions of Chinese people from mainland cannot?” a user asked. “That’s not fair, can you speak up for those millions of Chinese who don’t have internet freedom.”
“Anyone can download a VPN. Its literally free on the App Store,” Gu replied, according to a screenshot of the since-deleted exchange.
Some lauded Gu for defending China. But others derided her for not acknowledging her own privilege and understanding little about the reality for the majority of China’s 1.4 billion people.
“Literally I’m not ‘anyone.’ Literally it’s illegal for me to scale the Great Firewall. Literally it’s f–king not free at all!” a Weibo user gibed, using a colloquial term to refer to China’s internet censorship system.
Not ‘Chinese’ enough
Compared to the craze for Gu, the public reaction to Zhu tells a much harsher story.
According to a profile on the International Olympic Committee’s website, Zhu gave up her American citizenship to compete for China and changed her name from Beverly Zhu. But she has been repeatedly criticized for not being “Chinese” enough.
When Zhu first started competing in China in 2018, she was never confident enough to speak Chinese on camera. Her early interviews with state broadcaster CCTV were conducted in English.
While Gu’s Chinese has been seen as a pleasant surprise, Zhu’s lack of fluency is regarded by many as inexcusable. She has made great improvements since, though she is still not as eloquent as Gu – a comparison that is routinely held against her.
“Please let her learn Chinese first, before she talks about patriotism,” a Weibo user said on Sunday.
“Ancestral lineage and language play a very important role in identity,” said a Beijing-based political analyst, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retribution.
If one looks Chinese but can’t speak a sentence of Chinese, he said, it gives the impression that they have lost touch with their cultural heritage.
“It means your parents never spoke Chinese with you at home and raised you as an American. And when you turn 16, you suddenly say you’re coming to serve the motherland – the patriotic narrative just doesn’t hold up,” the analyst said.
And unlike Gu, who was brought in to boost China’s performance in a sport little heard of in the country, Zhu faced tight competition from Chinese-born skaters.
When Zhu was picked to represent China in the Olympics, some accused her of grabbing the spot from her teammate Chen Hongyi, who had more experience in international competition and enjoyed greater popularity among the Chinese public.
Some even suggested – without a shred of evidence – that Zhu was favored because of the prominence of her father, a renowned computer scientist who returned to China from California to join Peking University.
“Many of the attacks against Zhu were driven by the public distrust in the country’s state sports system and its perceived lack of transparency,” said the political analyst.
When Zhu fell flat on the ice and finished last in her Olympic debut Sunday, many saw it as vindication that picking Zhu over her rival was unjustified. Some called her a “disgrace,” others accused her of being an “embarrassment” who brought “shame” on China, and told her to “go back to America.” The hashtag “Zhu Yi has fallen” gained 200 million views in just a few hours, before it was censored.
On Monday, Zhu stumbled again during her free skate program, falling twice and breaking down in tears on the ice. “Today I gave myself the pressure. I wanted to prove myself, because I didn’t do well yesterday, and what everyone said on the internet really affected me,” she told China’s official news agency Xinhua.
As the criticism piled on, others expressed sympathy and support for Zhu, including Hu Xijin, the retired editor of state-run nationalist tabloid the Global Times.
“To vent emotions on this young athlete, using social media to throw rocks down a well when she makes mistakes – that’s cyberbullying, and no matter what it’s going too far,” Hu wrote in a widely shared Weibo post.
Gu also came to the defense of Zhu after winning gold Tuesday. “The mistakes and the pressure are all part of sports. Many other athletes have fallen too, as you can see today. We should all have some sportsmanship,” she said at a news conference.
For Chen, who won gold for the US in men’s figure skating Thursday, the adoration and praise emanating from America stands in stark contrast to the wave of vitriol on Weibo.
Like Zhu, Chen was also accused of acting “too White.” At a news conference after his victory, he declined to answer a local reporter’s question in Chinese, insisting his Mandarin “isn’t very good.”
But it was the political tensions that landed him the most vicious nationalistic attack.
Chen was called a “traitor” and accused of “insulting China” due to an interview he gave in October, during which he appeared to have backed American ice dancer Evan Bates’ criticism of China’s human rights record. Bates especially decried China’s treatment of its largely Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, which he described as “terrible” and “awful.”
“We’re human beings, too, and when we read and hear about the things that are happening there, we absolutely hate that. We hate what’s going on there,” Bates told reporters at a US Olympic and Paralympic Committee media event in October, according to Reuters.
“I agree with what Evan was saying,” Chen said at the same event. “I think that for a greater change to occur, there must be power that is beyond the Olympics.”
The US government has labeled China’s crackdown on Uyghurs genocide and declared a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games. China has lashed out at any criticism over Xinjiang, insisting its policies are aimed at combating terrorism and religious extremism.
Another sore point for Chinese nationalists was Chen’s choice of music for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. There, Chen skated to a song from the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a drama of triumph over adversary based on the real-life story of a Chinese dancer who defected to the US in the 1980s.
At a news conference on Friday, Chen said the music had been selected by his choreographer. “Maybe naively, I didn’t understand the whole system, the whole story behind it, just that the music was very beautiful,” he said.
On Weibo, some congratulated Chen and praised his stellar performance on Thursday, but they were overwhelmed by others expressing hate and scorn, with some asking him to “get out of China.”
Chinese state media, meanwhile, mostly ignored Chen’s gold medal win, with coverage of the competition focusing instead on Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu (finished fourth) – who has a huge fan base in China – and Chinese figure skater Jin Boyang (finished ninth).
Chen pays little attention to attempts to undermine his identity. He’s proud of his Chinese heritage, and points out the importance of Beijing, where his parents first met, to his family’s history.
“It means the world to be able to be here. My mom grew up in Beijing…And of course, my dad spent a lot of time in Beijing as well,” he said after winning the event Thursday.
He also shrugged off the wave of online vitriol: “I don’t have social media here. So I probably have been very sheltered from that. And I don’t plan on looking at social since sometimes social (media) can be a little toxic.”