At the Olympics, Nathan Chen and other Chinese Americans urged to choose sides

BEIJING — When figure skater Nathan Chen won an Olympic gold medal for the United States, state media in China, his parents’ native cou...


BEIJING — When figure skater Nathan Chen won an Olympic gold medal for the United States, state media in China, his parents’ native country, all but ignored his victory.

When California-born skateboarder Beverly Zhu stumbled on the ice when he first appeared in China, Chinese social media users told him to “go back to America”.

When Eileen Gu won skiing gold for china, people in china celebrated it as the pride of the nation. But in the United States, where she was born and raised, some conservative political pundits have called her ungrateful.

To be a Chinese-American athlete on sport’s most important global stage is to be a lightning rod for patriotic, some say nationalist, sentiment. Once seen as bridges connecting the two countries, the Chinese-American Olympians — and their successes and failures — are increasingly seen as proxies in the larger geopolitical tussle of the superpowers.

In China, a resurgent nationalism means that even among citizens, anyone spreading even the lightest 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 suspicious as outsiders. Depending on the moment and the mood, they can be shunned as traitors to the fatherland or embraced as heroes who bring glory to the nation.

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

“When I’m in China, I’m Chinese and when I go to America, I’m American,” Ms. Gu, 18, has often said in response to questions about her decision to compete for China. Ms. Gu, whose father is white and mother Chinese, was born and raised in California by her mother. She is fluent in Chinese and often visited Beijing as a child.

But heightened geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington have made it difficult for these athletes to maintain balance.

“We can see the heightened expectations and demands of these young athletes to choose a side, to prove their loyalty in one way or another,” said Ellen Wuassociate professor of history at Indiana University who researches the history of Asian Americans.

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

About 30 athletes competing for China in this year’s Games are naturalized Chinese citizens, most playing for the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams. None, however, has attracted as much attention in the United States as Ms. Gu, who has already won two medals at these Games.

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

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

In China, however, Ms. Gu quickly became a superstar. Many Chinese are obsessed with her strong Beijing accent, her success as a model, and reports of her near-perfect SAT scores. She has a slew of lucrative endorsements from big Chinese brands, like JD.com, Bank of China and Anta.

Despite the outpouring of adulation in China, Ms. Gu is also walking the right path. So far, she has refused to answer repeated questions about whether she had returned her US passport. (China does not allow dual citizenship.)

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

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

The implication is that heritage alone is no longer enough for Chinese-American athletes to be adopted by China. Rather, it now depends on their ability to meet China’s increasingly demanding, if not unrealistic, expectations.

Not being able to speak fluent Chinese was the first strike against Beverly Zhu, the California-born figure skater who competes for China as Zhu Yi. Then, she fell several times during the competition, prompting Chinese social media users to unleash a wave of attacks on her, many of them ugly.

Many netizens called it a “shame” and suggested – without evidence – that Ms Zhu had been given a spot on the Chinese Olympic team rather than a Chinese-born skater because of the importance of her father, a computer scientist who moved to Peking University the United States. The attacks were so intense that Chinese internet censors stepped in to quell the vitriol.

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

“There was a time when people thought it was great to be American,” said Hung Huang, a Chinese-American writer based in Beijing. “But as politics between the two countries have soured, the Chinese feel they shouldn’t – or can’t – admire a country that points the finger at them all the time.”

The Chinese response to some of the athletes has been indifferent at best, derisory at worst. Last week, Chinese state media was remarkably silent on the gold medal won by American figure skater Mr. Chen in the men’s individual event, instead focusing on Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who finished fourth, and Chinese figure skater Jin Boyang, who placed ninth. Chinese social media users comments posted dismissing the American athlete’s achievement as unworthy of attention because, in their view, he had insulted China.

Mr Chen first upset Chinese audiences at the 2018 Games when he skated to the music of “Mao’s Last Dancer”, a 2009 film about a defected Chinese ballet dancer. (Mr. Chen said last week that he was unaware of the larger context of the music when he chose it.)

Then, in October, Mr Chen drew further criticism in China when he supported his teammate, Evan Bates, in his concerns about China’s human rights record.

“I agree with what Evan was saying,” Mr. Chen said at the time. “I think for greater change to happen, there has to be a power that goes beyond the Olympics. It has to be change on a remarkable scale.

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

David Zhuang, a Chinese-born table tennis player competing for the United States, recalls receiving a raucous welcome when he returned to Beijing in 2008 for the Summer Olympics. Mr Zhuang, who moved to the United States in 1990, said in a telephone interview that during a game he played, a group of Chinese fans gathered and shouted words of encouragement.

“Can you imagine, I left the country 18 years ago and here they were cheering me on,” Zhuang recalled. “I couldn’t play after that, I was so emotional.”

Watching the Games this time around, he said, the atmosphere was completely different.

“When I look at today’s relations, politics and competition between the two countries, it hurts a bit,” Zhuang said. “What a pity.”

Li you contributed to the research.

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Newsrust - US Top News: At the Olympics, Nathan Chen and other Chinese Americans urged to choose sides
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