The Olympics caught up with the rivalry between the United States and China
The Olympics caught up with the rivalry between the United States and China

The Olympics caught up with the rivalry between the United States and China

When figure skater Nathan Chen won an Olympic gold medal for the United States, the state media in China, his parents’ birthplace, virtually ignored his victory.

When California-born skater Beverly Zhu stumbled on the ice in her first appearance for China, Chinese social media users told her to “return to America.”

When Eileen Gu won gold skiing for China, people in China celebrated her as the nation’s pride. But in the United States, where she was born and educated, some conservative political experts called her ungrateful.

To be an American-born athlete of Chinese descent on the sport’s most prominent global stage is to be a lightning rod for patriotic, some say nationalist, emotions. Once held up as bridges connecting the two countries, the Chinese-American Olympians – and their successes and failures – are increasingly seen as agents in the broader geopolitical struggle of the superpowers.

In China, a resurgence of nationalism has meant that even among citizens, anyone who utters even the mildest criticism can be accused of disloyalty. But the scrutiny of Chinese Americans is often harsh in other ways.

They are expected to show loyalty as part of a perceived extended Chinese family, but they are also distrusted as outsiders. Depending on the moment and mood, they can be avoided as traitors to the motherland or embraced as heroes who bring glory to the nation.

Chinese fans cheer on Eileen Gu during women’s freeski big air competition on February 8 | DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES

For athletes, it is often a personal or practical decision to choose which country to compete for. Having ties to both the United States and China is also natural for Chinese Americans, many of whom grow up across two cultures, geographies and languages.

“When I’m in China, I’m Chinese, and when I travel to America, I’m American,” Gu, 18, has often said in response to questions about her decision to compete for China.

Gu, whose father is white and whose mother is Chinese, was born and raised in California by his mother. She speaks fluent Chinese and visited Beijing often as a child.

But the worsening geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington have made it difficult for such athletes to maintain the balance sheet.

“We can see the increased expectations and demands on these young athletes to choose sides, to prove their loyalty in one way or another,” said Ellen Wu, an associate professor of history at Indiana University who researches Asian American history.

Many countries have for decades recruited foreign-born athletes to increase their chances of winning medals at the Olympics. Now China is also looking for talent abroad.

About 30 athletes competing for China in this year’s Games are naturalized Chinese nationals, most of whom play for men’s and women’s ice hockey teams. However, no one has attracted as much attention in the United States as Gu, who has already won two medals at these games.

Gu has said her decision to compete for China was driven by a desire to practice the sport in the country. She has thanked both the United States and China for nurturing her. But some commentators on both sides treat the Olympics as a battlefield and use rhetoric about “betrayal” and “loyalty” to describe the athletes.

Will Cain, a Fox News host, said it was “ungrateful” of Gu to “betray the country that not only raised her but made her a world-class skier.”

Eileen Gu won gold for China in the big air competition, but there were mixed feelings in Chinese and American media about her success at these Olympics.  |  DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES
Eileen Gu won gold for China in the big air competition, but there were mixed feelings in Chinese and American media about her success at these Olympics. | DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES

In China, however, Gu has quickly become a superstar. Many Chinese are obsessed with her strong Beijing accent, her success as a model and reports on her near-perfect SAT results. She has a wealth of lucrative endorsements from the best Chinese brands like JD.com, Bank of China and Anta.

Despite the outpouring of admiration in China, Gu is also going on a fine line. She has so far declined to answer repeated questions about whether she handed in her U.S. passport. (China does not allow dual nationality.)

Hu Xijin, a recently retired editor of the Global Times, a cheeky nationalist Chinese newspaper, on Sunday warned Chinese propaganda agencies to moderate their praise of Gu, suggesting it was unclear which nation she would identify with as she got older.

“China’s national honor and credibility cannot be jeopardized in the case of Gu Ailing,” he wrote, referring to Gu by her Chinese name.

The implication is that heritage alone is no longer enough for Chinese-American athletes to be embraced by China. On the contrary, it now depends on their ability to follow China’s increasingly demanding, some say unrealistic, expectations.

Not being able to speak Chinese fluently was the first strike against Zhu, the California figure skater competing for China under the name Zhu Yi. She then fell several times during the competition, prompting Chinese social media users to unleash a wave of attacks on her, many of them ugly.

Many online users called her a “disgrace” and suggested – without evidence – that Zhu had been given a place on the Chinese Olympic team rather than a Chinese-born skater because of her father’s prominent role, a computer scientist who moved to Peking University from the United States. The attacks were so intense that Chinese internet censors stepped in to dampen the vitriol.

Beverly Zhu, or Zhu Yi, kisses the camera after competing in the short women's skating program on Wednesday.  She failed to qualify for the final.  |  CHANG W. LEE / NEW YORK TIMES
Beverly Zhu, or Zhu Yi, kisses the camera after competing in the short women’s skating program on Wednesday. She failed to qualify for the final. | CHANG W. LEE / NEW YORK TIMES

The negativity stems in part from a disillusionment with the United States and a perception in China that Washington is unfairly inciting hostility toward Beijing in an attempt to block the country’s progress.

“There was a time when people felt it was great to be American,” said Hung Huang, a Chinese-born American writer based in Beijing. “But as the policy between the two countries has gone down the rabbit hole, Chinese people feel that they should not – can not – admire a country that points fingers at them all the time.”

The Chinese reaction to some of the athletes has been indifferent at best, scornful at worst. Last week, Chinese state media was noticeably silent about the gold medalist of Chen, the American figure skater, in the men’s individual event, focusing instead on Japanese Yuzuru Hanyu, who finished in fourth place, and on Chinese figure skater Jin Boyang, who finished ninth. . . Chinese social media users posted comments dismissing the American athlete’s performance as unworthy of attention because, in their opinion, he had insulted China.

Chen had originally ranked the Chinese public at the 2018 Games when he skated to the music of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a 2009 film about a Chinese ballet dancer who had jumped off. (Chen said last week that he was not aware of the broader context of music when he chose it.)

Then, in October, Chen raised more criticism in China as he supported his teammate, Evan Bates, in expressing concern over China’s human rights status.

“I agree with what Evan said,” Chen said at the time. “I think in order for there to be a bigger change, there has to be power that goes beyond the Olympics. It has to change to a remarkable extent.”

Nathan Chen after winning gold in the men's singles skate competition at the Beijing Olympics in 2022. |  HIROKO MASUIKE / NEW YORK TIMES
Nathan Chen after winning gold in the men’s singles skate competition at the Beijing Olympics in 2022. | HIROKO MASUIKE / NEW YORK TIMES

Two decades ago, China held athletes like figure skater Michelle Kwan and tennis player Michael Chang up as cultural ambassadors.

David Zhuang, a Chinese-born table tennis player who competes for the United States, recalled receiving a fierce welcome when he returned to Beijing in 2008 for the Summer Olympics. Zhuang, who had moved to the United States in 1990, said in a telephone interview that during a match he was playing, a group of Chinese fans gathered around and shouted encouraging words.

“Can you imagine I had left the country 18 years before, and here they cheered on me,” Zhuang recalled. “I could not play after it, I was so emotional.”

When he saw The Games this time, he said, the atmosphere felt completely different.

“When I look at the relationship today, and the politics and the competition between the two countries, it hurts a little bit,” Zhuang said. “What a shame.”

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