THE BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS is throwing a sideways spotlight on national identity. It is focused on Gu Ailing (above), the 18-year old Calfornia-born skier who has won a gold medal competing for China.
The issues it raises are complex. They concern the binariness of national identity, the intertwining of ethnicity and nationality as a basis for state, and state use of sport and athletes to project national power.
Gu was born, raised and still lives in the United States, where she goes by the given name Eileen. Her father is American; her mother is Chinese. Gu Yan came to the United States as a post-graduate biochemistry student and subsequently pursued a career there in finance. Her daughter switched her sporting affiliation from the United States to the country of her mother’s birth, at 15 years old by when she was already a rising star in US skiing.
Gu Ailing is far from unique among athletes in choosing to represent a country other than that of their birth. Elite sport finds it convenient to take a multigenerational view of nationality; eligibility can be derived from grandparents. Many of the Senegalese football team that recently won the Africa Cup of Nations, for example, were born in France, not Senegal, although they have family roots there.
Our man on the slopes tells us that Gu is among around a dozen foreign-born Chinese Winter Olympics team members, including US-born figure skaters (Beverly) Zhu Yi and (Ashley) Lin Shan, and at least five US-born ice hockey team members.
Gu’s nationality has been a matter of some speculation. As the daughter of a Chinese mother born in China, Gu would be a Chinese citizen regardless of where she was born. That she was born in San Francisco would also make her a US citizen.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be nationals of the countries they represent and has said that Gu ‘acquired Chinese nationality in 2019’, and submitted a copy of her passport to it that year in connection with her change of affiliation.
The United States recognises dual nationality. China, however, does not, although not recognising it and turning a blind eye to it if needs be, are different matters.
Gu has been evasive about whether she has renounced her US citizenship. Instead, she portrays herself as a bi-national. She has repeated the line that ‘when I’m in the US, I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese’ that she used at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, her first major competition in her new national colours.
That sentiment may strike a chord among many other biracial children and the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who find themselves shuttling between two heritages. However, most of those people will not be high-profile individuals. Gu is a model and a paid ‘face’ for several international brands, as well as an Olympian who chose to switch her affiliation to a nation the land of her birth considers a geopolitical rival.
There are plenty of reasons for Gu to have opted to represent China. There is strong cultural affinity: she was raised by the maternal side of her family (her grandmother was an engineer with the Ministry of Transport), speaks accentless Mandarin and spent time in China every year as a child. There may be commercial considerations: she also has multi-million dollar brand endorsements in China, where she is lauded as the country’s ‘Snow Princess’; at 18, she may be laying a long-term geopolitical and macroeconomic bet on the future.
One reason that can be ruled out is that it gave her an easier shot at getting to the Beijing Games. She is world-class in her sport, as her gold medal testifies, and would walk into any country’s Winter Olympics team.
She has said that her motivation is that she has a greater opportunity to be a role model to young skiers in China, where winter sports are just taking off, than in the United States. Winter sports are popular recreationally there, but professionally, they only really get their place in the sun once every four years when the Winter Olympics come round.
Gu is accomplished, self-assured and a person who wants to leave her mark on the world. Yet, going from US athlete to Chinese athlete is a path less skied, especially when US-China relations are cutting up rough. Gu has been vilified on US social media for her choice, although that can be a dark place at the best of times everywhere. Zhu Yi was vilified on Weibo for her error-ridden performances.
There is also no escaping that sport and politics are bedfellows whether the athletes like it or not or whether they choose to use their sporting celebrity as a political platform. Just as the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing were used by authorities to promote China’s arrival in the world, these Games are being used to promote the idea that this is the moment for President Xi Jinping and his vision of the new China revitalised.
Gu has been impressive in appearing to remain apolitical during the Games. Her deft deflections of questions about her citizenship were matched by that of a question about the presence of tennis star Peng Shuai — that she’s ‘grateful that [Peng] is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again’.
While not an overtly political comment that would have opened her to criticism in one or other of her homelands, her answer was no less political than her decision to give her first post-gold medal-winning interview to the newspaper of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the top anti-corruption agency.
The question is how sustainable will her stance be, especially once she is back in the United States. There is no indication that Gu will move her domicile to China. In the autumn, she will attend Stanford University, one of her mother’s almae matres (Gu Yan is also a graduate of Peking University).
Outside the Olympic bubble, it is a different world. It is also an increasingly nationalist one in which US attitudes towards China are hardening and vice versa. She will, for example, be pressed in the United States to explain why she endorses the sports apparel brand Anta, which is open in its use of cotton from Xinjiang, a region from which the United States now bans imports, citing human rights abuses.
Whether she likes it or not and no matter how much she dissembles about it, her sporting success for China has made her a prominent Chinese public figure.
Given the current reduction of personal contacts between China and the West at all levels, anyone who can bridge the two should be welcomed. After winning her gold medal, Gu said, ‘I definitely feel as though I’m just as American as I am Chinese … Both [countries] continue to be supportive of me because they understand my mission is to use sport as a force for unity.’
This Bystander hopes that she is not being Pollyannaish, especially given China’s ‘whole of society’ approach to countering foreign adversaries. The narrative of China as a force for global unity and the non-politicisation of sport is one that Beijing is currently advancing. State media has reported Gu’s comments about being Chinese in China but American in the United States yet still identifying her as ‘of China’.
However, China also strongly advances the primacy of the Chinese model of everything from governance to sovereignty and the rules of the international order.
Should the political imperative for the narrative that Gu currently embodies change, that nuanced distinction will be less useful to a country in which ethnic, national, state and Party identity are closely intertwined, and nationalism is rising. Divided loyalty might then become untenable and equal identity along with it for as long as there are nation states.