Until recently, the US-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu – or Gu Ailing as she is known in China – was one of the rising numbers of Chinese Americans straddling the two countries. They are comfortable operating between the two cultures and systems, taking pride in their heritage as well as their upbringing.
Gu, now 18, was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother. She’s a big fan of Chinese dumplings and, every summer, she flew back to Beijing to attend cram school for mathematics. “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese and when I go to America, I’m American,” she once said.
But as the geopolitical mood between China and America began to shift, Gu was also caught in the middle between nationalism, identity and loyalty on both sides of the Pacific. While she was lauded in China, for which she has won three Olympic medals, she was denounced by a Fox News analyst as “ungrateful”, saying that her “reverse migration” was “shameful”.
In 2019, Gu switched her sport allegiance from the US to China. She said at the time: “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote the sport I love.”
Since early this year, questions have repeatedly been raised about her citizenship. China does not recognise dual-nationals, and under Rule 41 of the Olympic charter, Gu must be a Chinese citizen in order to compete for the country. And if this is the case, analysts say, she would not be able to retain a US passport simultaneously.
In recent months, as Beijing doubles down its promotion of Chinese identity, it has required its broadcasters to scrutinise the citizenships of celebrities who are active in mainland China. This move has resulted in some high-profile actors renouncing their non-Chinese nationalities.
Gu has always dodged the question about her citizenship in public. In response to a Guardian question about her critics, she replied: “I’m an 18-year-old out here living my best life. I’m not going to waste my time trying to placate people who are uneducated, and don’t experience the gratitude and love I have on a daily basis.”
Her answer won her rounds of applause on Chinese social media. Nationalists praised Gu for her ability to speak both languages fluently and for showing her standout intellect so elegantly. The official China Daily newspaper said her response to her critics should be given “full marks”.
In China, Gu is a symbol of national pride and the face of almost a dozen brands and products. They range from China Mobile and Bank of China to the US brand Victoria’s Secret, which has a big ambition in a gigantic consumer market. She’s also a regular name discussed on the social media platform Weibo, with adoring commenters calling her an “ice-snow female goddess”.
But despite the outpouring of adulation in China, Gu is also walking a fine line and her future remains uncertain in the country she now represents. Last week, Hu Xijin, a recently retired editor in chief of the influential nationalist tabloid Global Times warned Chinese media to tone down their praise for Gu because it was still unclear which country she would like to associate with when she was older.
“China’s national honour and credibility should not be put at stake in the case of Gu Ailing,” Hu wrote, adding that although she saw herself as Chinese and American, the reality may not turn out to be the way she wished as the bilateral relations between China and the US continued to deteriorate.
Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, agreed. Daly said Hu’s warning represented a growing strand of thinking in both China and the US that it was increasingly common for those with dual heritage to feel pressured into taking a side.
“For many years, a large number of Chinese Americans have been free to move back and forth between both countries, benefiting both and benefiting from both without consequences,” said Daly. “But the ground has shifted under their feet.”
Daly said Gu’s saga could have been a simple story when the framing of the bilateral relations was dominated by “engagement”: an American athlete who decided to move to China and won Olympic medals. But instead, the question of her citizenship has become a subject of sensitivity in the current geopolitical climate. “And Gu’s silence caused suspicion,” Daly said.
“This Olympics should have put the contribution of Chinese American athletes like Gu under the spotlight – to highlight their role as a bridge to both nations, but unfortunately it has turned out to be otherwise.”