Winter Olympics: Why has Eileen Gu's 'Chineseness' sparked a raging debate on nationality and allegiance to China and US?

Eileen Gu with her gold medal for winning the women’s freeski half-pipe.
PHOTO: Reuters

The success of freestyle skier Eileen Gu at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has generated heated debate in some circles on the issue of athletes who have abandoned the country they were born and raised in to represent another.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) may tout the Games as a celebration of sportsmanship and unity, but some spectators have taken it as an all-or-nothing contest between nations.

For athletes representing China such as Gu and figure skater Zhu Yi , both California-born, and most of the women’s and men’s ice hockey teams, sitting astride the divide of national identities means facing unrelenting questions about their nationality and even allegiance.

The Olympic Charter, which shapes how the Olympic Games are run, says a competitor must be the national of the country of their Olympic committee. Athletes can change the country they represent, and those with multiple citizenships can choose to represent any one of them of their choice.

The IOC said in an email that Gu had acquired Chinese nationality in 2019, and the sporting body had seen a copy of her Chinese passport submitted by the Chinese Olympic Committee.

“Consequently, Ms Gu is fully eligible, from a nationality perspective, to represent the People’s Republic of China at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022,” the IOC said.

This flexibility, however, is not afforded to Chinese athletes.

No dual citizenship in China

China is among the countries that do not recognise dual citizenship, and Chinese nationals who have obtained a foreign nationality will have their Chinese nationality automatically rescinded, according to the Chinese Nationality Law.

The statute was passed in 1980, a year after it began to open up its economy . It has been left unchanged since, despite a global trend towards recognising dual citizenship, according to 2020 data from the Maastricht University’s Centre for Citizenship, Migration and Development.

While scholars have debated and floated the idea of dual citizenship in China to improve the country’s market access and talent pool, those efforts have made little progress. As with most countries, China adopts a mix of bloodline and birthplace principles to determine if a person is a Chinese national at birth.

A child born to a Chinese citizen outside China can still hold Chinese nationality, unless the person was conferred another nationality at birth. A child born in China to Chinese residents who are stateless or whose nationalities are unclear, is granted Chinese nationality at birth.

Eileen Gu’s mother is from China, which makes her eligible for Chinese nationality.
PHOTO: Reuters

Foreigners with a Chinese close relative can also be naturalised whether or not they live in China, the Nationality Law says. The bloodline principle emanated from a 1909 law during the late Qing dynasty, when China was attempting to establish a modern state by incorporating international norms after devastating defeats in wars against Western countries and Japan.

“The law essentially declared that any child of a Chinese father, wherever born anywhere in the world, was a Chinese subject and citizen,” said Charlotte Brooks, a history professor at Baruch College, City University of New York.

The Communist government founded in 1949 recognised dual citizenship but stopped doing so by the end of the 1950s. China needed to maintain good ties with newly formed non-communist Southeast Asian states with ethnic Chinese migrant communities that were wary of the export of communist revolution.

“Faced with these challenges, in order to establish good relationships with its neighbours, the PRC adjusted its citizenship policies towards the overseas Chinese and gave up the dual citizenship provisions,” Guo Zhonghua, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, wrote in a 2014 article published in the Cambridge Journal of China Studies .

In modern-day China, Beijing, especially under President Xi Jinping, has talked about ethnic Chinese people living outside China as “overseas compatriots” and tied them with the rise of China’s “national rejuvenation” .

“I don’t think these are completely off base in some ways, but at the same time, by making arguments that somehow all people of Chinese ancestry [relate to] glory and the rise of the motherland, you create some problems for people of Chinese ancestry who don’t care or don’t attach themselves or don’t feel a tie,” Brooks said.

China’s naturalised athletes

State media in China, where winter sports have only begun to take off, has highlighted the “foreign faces” of some athletes representing China, especially after the impressive three-medal haul by Gu.

An article in Global Times , a nationalist Communist Party tabloid, has underscored how most of the naturalised ice hockey players are of Chinese descent. Talent exchange in sports is more than common, but not in China because of its laws and how ordinary people see “Chineseness”.

Gu, born to a Chinese mother and an American father , is often questioned about her nationality and decision to represent China at the Olympics after skiing for the US at the 2018-19 World Cup.

Eileen Gu, proud of her ‘Chineseness’, eats dumplings in a Beijing restaurant before the start of the Winter Olympics.
PHOTO: Weibo

The Federalist, a conservative US online magazine, has written an article headlined “In a world of China-sympathising Eileen Gus, we should all try to be a US-loving Nathan Chen”, referring to the Chinese-American figure skater who won Team USA two medals and smashed a world record in Beijing.

She has not directly said whether she had given up her American passport to obtain Chinese nationality. Her name is not on the quarterly list published by the US Internal Revenue Service of some people who have lost their American citizenship.

But she has said: “Nobody can deny I’m American. When I go to China, nobody can deny I’m Chinese because I’m fluent in the language and culture and completely identify as such.”

After a costly stumble in the team and individual events, figure skater Zhu was vilified on Chinese social media . Some users attacked her, pointing to her US background and Mandarin that carried a trace of a foreign accent. A day after the team event, Weibo said it had deleted more than 41,000 posts and banned over 850 accounts that “attacked athletes with irony and insulting language”.

“You have shrill nationalists on both sides who say, ‘This is what loyalty means. This is what Chinese identity means. This is what American identity means’,” Brooks said.

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“And then we have the reality of a global world. We have the reality of people who have parents from different places, where people who’ve grown up in-between two places, or in one place but with strong ties to another place.”

While social media discourse cannot fully represent public opinion, how law has shaped nationality and how identities are being discussed means the debate will continue over Gu, Zhu and athletes with a mixed heritage who choose to represent China on the world stage.

“Unfortunately, nationalism tends to be very limited and monogamous in a way that it’s defined,” she said.

“It’s a strange way to talk about it, but people’s identities are often really much more complicated than what national governments are comfortable with or allow or recognise. And that was the case a hundred years ago. That is the case today.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.