screengrab eileen gu presser
Reporters press Eileen Gu over her citizenship. See her response
04:00 - Source: CNN

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

“Thank you China,” complete with a Chinese flag and a heart emoji, might seem like an innocuous enough farewell message from China’s Winter Olympics superstar Eileen Gu.

After winning two gold medals, countless hearts and substantial fame and fortune, the American-born freeski prodigy is wrapping up her months-long stay in China, where she is known as Gu Ailing.

It is an anticipated departure – the 18-year-old is heading to Stanford in the fall, having deferred her entry for a year to focus on the Olympic Games.

But her goodbye post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, still caused a big stir among her 6.7 million followers and other users, sparking both praise and debate.

A related hashtag “Gu Ailing posts on Weibo to thank China” became the platform’s top trending topic Thursday. By Friday, it has raked up 290 million views.

Her fans, many of them young Chinese women, rushed to thank her back. “You’re most welcome because you’re one of us,” a top comment with 41,000 upvotes said. “Thank you for bringing me so much positive energy,” said another.

Gu also posted on Instagram, saying: “Thank you China for the unforgettable few months & for the endless love.”

But not everyone in China appreciated her “thank you” – at least, not the way she worded it.

On Weibo, some accused Gu of acting “like a foreigner,” alleging she thanked China with a notable sense of distance. Others questioned why she didn’t say “thank you motherland” or “thank you (my) country” like other Chinese athletes.

“Ultimately she thinks of herself as an American. She only joined China temporarily,” one top comment said.

The mixed response to Gu’s post illustrates the intense scrutiny the teenage star has faced while attempting to walk the difficult tightrope of being both American and Chinese at a time of geopolitical tensions between both countries.

Born and raised in California, Gu chose in 2019 to compete for China – where her mother was born. But despite being widely embraced inside China, she has been dogged by questions over her nationality – and by extension, her allegiance to the country she now represents.

According to the Olympic Charter, an athlete must be a national of the country they compete for; a competitor who is a national of two or more countries at the same time may represent either one of them.

But China does not allow dual citizenship, and has even cracked down in recent years on people holding two passports, with the government encouraging the public to report them.

Gu has never publicly shared whether she renounced her US citizenship to compete for China, and speculation grew after she applied for the US Presidential Scholars Program in 2021, which is only open to US citizens or permanent residents.

At press conferences, Gu repeatedly dodged questions about her citizenship, often saying: “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the US, I’m American.”

She has also alluded to this dual identity numerous other times, thanking her American coaches and expressing a desire to inspire other Chinese athletes.

But she found herself in an impossible position during the Olympics, facing condemnation from some in the West for representing China, as well as an all-out PR campaign in China that portrayed her as the face of the country’s sporting dreams and a soft power victory.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials and state media have also carefully avoided the question of Gu’s nationality, instead emphasizing her Chinese heritage. The tacit ambiguity has fueled speculation that the Chinese government has bent its own rules to make an exception for Gu to hold two passports – irking some in China.

“Why shouldn’t we look into her dual nationality? Is ‘everybody is equal before the law’ just a lie?” one Weibo user asked.

“You only get it now? The law is only meant to be used on ordinary people,” another comment replied.

She has previously drawn criticism for not singing the national anthem when the Chinese flag was being raised during a medal ceremony at the Winter Olympics. She has also been derided for not acknowledging her own privilege, when she claimed that anyone in China can download a VPN for free on the App Store. Most of the criticism against her has been censored online.

By Thursday evening, Weibo appeared to have restricted the latest discussions about Gu’s farewell too. A search for the trending hashtag “Gu Ailing posts on Weibo to thank China” only shows posts from official accounts now – and unsurprisingly, all are showering her with praise.

CNN’s Jessie Yeung contributed to this report.