The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China filled its Olympic team with naturalized citizens, but fans like them only when they win

Zhu Yi and Eileen Gu have had very different experiences at the 2022 Olympics, but both chose to compete for China after growing up in the United States. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
8 min

BEIJING — There is a sense of anticipation in the crowd as they wait to see whether skier Eileen Gu can once again stick the landing. And she does, repeatedly.

In a news conference Tuesday, after winning her first Olympic gold in the freestyle skiing big air event, 18-year-old Gu, who was born in California to a Chinese mother and now competes for China, answers politically delicate questions with a display of poised code-switching between languages and vastly different political cultures.

From English-speaking reporters, she deftly fielded questions about her citizenship and what she thought about Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, about whom there has been concern after she accused a former senior official of sexual assault. Then Chinese journalists asked whether Gu, as a “Beijing girl,” could say a typical local phrase and disclose what her favorite local dish is. Gu, who speaks Mandarin fluently, thickened the throaty “er” of her Beijing accent and went with Peking duck.

The response to her performances, on and off the slopes at the Olympics, has been a hero’s reception in China. But if there is a mirror image of Gu’s success story, it’s the experience of Zhu Yi, another California-born athlete who is also competing for China as a first-time Olympian in Beijing.

Zhu, a 19-year-old figure skater with Chinese heritage, fell twice in consecutive days of competition, drawing a wave of online abuse on Chinese social media. Nationalists insulted her lack of fluency in Mandarin and questioned her suitability for Olympic competition, to the point that China’s Internet censors stepped in.

Chinese social media savages California-born skater Zhu Yi over competition falls

Side by side, the two stories capture the twists and traumas of the Chinese Olympic Committee’s extensive efforts to recruit international athletes for Beijing 2022. More than ever, China has relied on athletes granted citizenship for events where it previously struggled to win medals in events including figure skating, ice hockey and skiing.

The experiment to internationalize Chinese sports has not sat easily with fiercely nationalist fans who are watching the foreign-born athletes closely. When everything goes well, as it has with Gu, viewers accept them with pride. But one slip-up, in competition or elsewhere, and the attempt to straddle the line between nations can become perilous.

That balancing act has been worsened by a lack of official explanations of how the naturalized athletes fit within the Chinese legal system or the future of its national team. China does not recognize dual citizenship, and conservatives strongly oppose any relaxation of the country’s strict immigration laws.

“Naturalized athletes are a shortcut — a contingency plan — for the host country to catch up and improve performance in a particular field,” said Sean Wang, a Beijing-based sports commentator.

The search, Wang said, has focused primarily on athletes of Chinese descent because “for the average Chinese, it might be too much to swallow if we had a national team entirely of non-Chinese-looking faces, especially during Winter Games on home soil.”

He added: “In a conservative setting like Chinese sports, the tolerance for difference and the taste for diversity is still very limited.”

While naturalization is common across competitive sports in many other countries — and plenty of Americans have competed for the countries of their parents — the practice is relatively new in China.

“When I realized it was happening, I was pretty shocked,” said Susan Brownell, an anthropologist and expert on Chinese sports at the University of Missouri at St Louis. “The reason it hadn’t happened before was, quite frankly, xenophobia."

One of the country’s earliest naturalized athletes was London-born Alex Hua Tian, who competed for China in the equestrian triathlon in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing as part of the Chinese Olympic Committee’s bid to be represented in every event.

Until recently Hua, whose father is Chinese, was an outlier in a sports system dominated by athletes trained in state-run academies. For many individual summer sports, a nationwide effort to identify talented children at a young age and train them in an ultracompetitive environment has delivered great results for China.

But winter sports presented a new set of challenges. The small communities of skaters and skiers were not enough of a pool for locally trained talent. In November 2018, China’s sports administration called on winter sports schools and associations to relax restrictions on nationality to encourage overseas Chinese and foreigners to take part in competitions.

Retired Chinese figure skater Chen Lu launched an international hunt for talent that ended up bringing four U.S.-born skaters to China to train, with only Zhu making the final cut to compete.

But officials remained cautious of the all-out internationalization of development programs. For ice hockey, the inclusion of international talent has been stop-and-go, with international coaches and players being brought in for short periods without a consistent approach, according to Mark Simon, a Canadian business executive who has worked with youth clubs in China for more than a decade.

“It became clear about a year or so ago that using only Chinese and only heritage players wasn’t going to work,” Simon said. The women’s squad, which has 11 naturalized players out of 23, notched two wins before being knocked out of the preliminary round. The men’s squad has only 10 Chinese-born players out of 25 and will play its first match against the United States on Thursday.

“I don’t think it sends a good message. If you have a policy of no dual citizenship, but you are saying the only way to get a half-decent result is to put a bunch of White guys on the team, I don’t think the public will understand it,” he said.

China’s uncertainty over how to handle naturalized players appears to have led to some odd moments, like the Canadian-born goaltender of the women’s team, Zhou Jiaying, a Princeton University graduate who also goes by Kimberly Newell on Twitter, telling reporters she was not allowed to speak to them in English.

Sentiment among China’s outspoken nationalists is notoriously fickle, and swings from adulation to attack are also common for ethnically Chinese people competing for other nations. At a time when relations between Beijing and Washington are at their most tense in decades, American athletes with Chinese heritage at the Olympics, like figure skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, who might once have been celebrated for their Chinese roots, have been met with a blend of indifference and derision.

At the start of the Olympics, speed skater Shaolin Sandor Liu, who competes for Hungary but has a Chinese father, attracted widespread acclaim on Chinese social media for his authentic northeastern accent and his declaration that any medal he won would be half for China, half for Hungary. (Liu and his brother both trained in China for 18 months as teenagers.)

But Chinese social media accounts turned on Liu on Monday after he and Chinese skater Ren Ziwei collided in the 1,000-meter short track final. Liu crossed the line first and was initially awarded gold, until a video replay revealed that he had made contact with Ren during a lane change.

On Tuesday, the hashtag #LiuShaolinBrokeTheRules attracted 280 million views on Weibo as users vented below images capturing the foul.

Some accused Liu of duplicity when dealing with fans in China. “Liu Shaolin has always been a two-faced person,” read a comment with 10,000 likes. “I don’t understand how he was able to drum up so many people to speak on his behalf.”

Brownell, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in China and competed in national college track and field events there in the 1980s, said the Chinese leadership is aware that nationalist vitriol can get out of control and will intervene when it does.

She gave the example of Lang Ping, the former Chinese national team player who coached the U.S. women’s volleyball team during the 2008 Summer Olympics. When Brownell was working with state broadcaster CCTV in 2008 as a commentator, she said, the station discouraged reporting on Lang over fears of a vitriolic backlash in China for abandoning the nation.

Since then, Lang’s public image in China has been rehabilitated, after she coached the Chinese women’s team to a gold medal in Rio. The story was then turned into “Leap,” a popular biopic, in which Lang was played by Gong Li, one of China’s best-known actresses.

Brownell said officials will probably remain cautious about expanding the use of naturalized athletes, as they wait to see the results of this year’s experiment, but there are growing signs of willingness to celebrate stories like Gu’s.

“The official attitude is to hold up returnees as heroes,” she said. “You have to hope that the nasty nationalists become outliers.”

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

Read more:

Eileen Gu: Born and raised in America, skiing for China

Gu is an original, and the world is going to have to deal with it

With a cathartic performance, Nathan Chen exorcises four-year-old demons

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