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A tale of two citizens: China's Chinese-American Olympians

Skater Zhu Yi has been slammed on social media, while skier Eileen Gu remains the Olympic golden girl.


Of two Chinese-Americans competing for China, skater Zhu Yi (R) has been slammed on social media, while skier Eileen Gu (L) remains the Olympic golden girl.

Two of China's athletes at the 2022 Winter Olympics -- figure skater Zhu Yi and freestyle skier Eileen Gu -- were born in the United States, but later decided to embrace their Chinese heritage and represent the host nation at the Olympics. Yet they have been very differently received in China, with Zhu castigated on social media after a number of falls while skating, and Gu lionized after she took gold in the women’s freestyle skiing big air final at the Beijing 2022 Olympics. While California-born Gu has been lauded for her patriotism despite dodging questions about her current nationality, Zhu has been subjected to harsh criticism for "messing up," and for her relative lack of fluency in Mandarin, despite having publicly renounced her U.S. citizenship in 2018. "She should learn Chinese properly first; then maybe talk about how patriotic she is," one user commented acerbically on social media. Zhu's tears, obvious self-criticism and a father who returned to the motherland to work as a top-level artificial intelligence expert don't seem to have softened the online criticism either, while praise for Gu appears to be everywhere. "Zhu really messed up," one comment said, while another opined that "her performance was unacceptable." Mistakes by Gu, who speaks fluent Mandarin with a Beijing accent, were regarded as "cute," on the other hand. "Eileen Gu speaks fluent Chinese, and even has a Beijing accent, making it easier for her to connect with Chinese social media users," Chiaoning Su, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University, told RFA. "She is also very popular in Chinese media and online because of her appearance ... and her status as a Stanford University student," Su said. "Zhu Yi's Chinese isn't great by comparison, and so that gives the impression of greater distance ... so it puts her in a more unflattering light," she said.

China's Zhu Yi falls as she competes in the women's single skating free skating of the figure skating team event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing, Feb. 7, 2022. Credit: AFP

Free pass

Yet Gu has been unwilling to address the issue of patriotic allegiance head on. "When I'm in the U.S., I'm American, and when I'm in China, I'm Chinese, she has replied to journalists' questions about whether she has renounced her U.S. citizenship. A search on the website of the U.S. Treasury in early February revealed no official record of renunciation for anyone with a name resembling Gu's. Yet the question of her citizenship appears to be a non-issue for most social media commentators. U.S.-based journalist Wang Jian said it's likely that Gu's skiing gold has given her a free pass among the Chinese public. "They don't care if she has dual nationality or not; they just want her to win gold [for China]," Wang said. "And now she's done that, she can get away with anything." "If she hadn't won gold, she would have been history ... castigated [like Zhu]," he said.

Gold medalist Eileen Gu celebrates on the podium during the freestyle skiing women's freeski big air victory ceremony at the Beijing Medals Plaza in Beijing, Feb. 8, 2022.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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