Caught up in the Olympic Games of geopolitics

American-Chinese stars ski and skate into a blizzard of criticism amid US-China tension

Eileen Gu is fondly known as the “Snow Princess” after winning gold for China at the Winter Olympics. Nathan Chen has been branded a Chinese “traitor” for doing the same thing for the United States.

Both are American-Chinese born in the USA with apparently different views of the world.

In 2019, Gu switched from representing the US to China. The 18-year-old was raised in San Francisco by a Chinese mother and an American father.

Now her face is plastered across billboards for Louis Vuitton and Tiffany and magazine covers in the world’s second-largest economy. She also has nearly two million followers on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo.

Amid this blizzard of sponsorship and brand deals, a parallel career as a fashion model has followed. So has biting criticism.

“Given the nature of the China-US relationship, Gu’s decision was bound to generate some version of this response. Some in the United States have further criticized her for refusing to discuss politics or to speak out against China’s human rights abuses,” Lincoln Mitchell, who teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said last week.

“The irony of that criticism should not be lost on even the casual sports fan – because whenever athletes in the United States speak up about racism or other American problems, they are told by a large segment of the sports world some variation of ‘stick to sports’ or, if they are basketball players, ‘shut up and dribble’,” he wrote in a commentary for the CNN network.

For skater Chen, it has been a similar story with a distinctly different ending as cutting as a triple axel. 

Gold on gold:

  • The 22-year-old has suffered online abuse in China after winning the gold for the US in the men’s individual figure skating.
  • He has been called a “traitor” on Weibo and told to “get out of the” country.
  • Social media commentators suggested he was “insulting China” for representing the US.
  • He was also accused of being “too white.”
  • In comparison, Gu has enchanted netizens after winning a freestyle skiing gold.
  • The “Chinese people love her so much,” one Chinese academic gushed.

I can say human rights violations are abysmal.

Evan Bates, American ice skater

Delve deeper: Rabid nationalists on social media were angered by Chen’s decision to represent the US. There was also uproar after he backed teammate Evan Bates’ stand against China’s appalling human rights record.

What was said: “Speaking on behalf of all the athletes, I can say human rights violations are abysmal. If you’re asking what’s happening in China regarding the Muslims, it’s terrible, it’s awful,” Bates told a media briefing when asked about the internment of at least one million ethnic Muslim Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang.

Human rights stand: “I agree with what Evan was saying. I think that for change to occur, there must be [a] power that is beyond the Olympics,” Chen said in response to Bates’ comments.

Big picture: Human rights organizations have called the Winter Olympics the “Genocide Games.” A coalition of 200 global campaign groups issued a statement last year. They said, “at least two million Muslims – including Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks – were in ‘re-education camps’ in China.”

Debunking lies: “I would like to take some time to share with you my experience on how to debunk lies in Xinjiang and avoid being misled so that you can all see the true face of those who fabricated those lies,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

Anti-China forces: “It is not difficult to see that the real fabricators and ‘beneficiaries’ of Xinjiang-related lies are some anti-China forces in the United States,” Wang added at a media briefing last month.

China Factor comment: In the end, Gu and Chen have been dragged into China’s state-run propaganda campaign after strutting their stuff on the snow and ice. The most unsavory aspect of the Beijing Winter Olympics.