Chinese Nationalism at the Winter Olympics

Vicky Lin, Editor

The Olympics is widely regarded as the largest sports event in the world. As much as the Olympic motto advocates for pure sports spirits, the Olympics have always created political implications. Host countries are often incentivized by the opportunity to show the world its strength, to increase collective confidence in their people by winning medals, and to stimulate consumption during the game. During the Olympics, numerous audiences cheer in front of televisions not only because of adrenaline and love for sports but also for national pride. The recent Beijing Winter Olympics was no exception. Chinese nationalism was pushed to a peak whenever a Chinese athlete won a medal or broke a record. While the Chinese audience was generally encouraging to native athletes, their opinions on non-native Chinese athletes were more ambiguous. To boost the performance of the Chinese team in the Olympics, China recruited many foreign-born, ethnically Chinese athletes in its weak disciplines such as skiing, ice hockey, and figure skating. Responses from the Chinese audience to these athletes provide a unique perspective on understanding Chinese nationalism. Among the recruited athletes, the comparison between Eileen Gu, an 18-year-old freestyle skier, and Yi Zhu, a 19-year-old figure skater, is the most interesting. 

Gu and Zhu have a lot in common. Both were born and raised in the Bay area, and both decided to switch their sports nationalities to China for the 2022 Winter Olympic games. However, they are also visibly different. Gu grew up with her Chinese mother, but she is half-white. Zhu’s parents are both Chinese. Gu has held a strong record in freestyle skiing, winning titles in World Championships, Winter Youth Olympics, and the X Games. On the other hand, Zhu has not been able to produce top results in international competitions. Gu can speak fluent Mandarin with a Beijing accent, but past interviews show Zhu’s lack of capability in Mandarin. Before the Olympics, Chinese people have shown different attitudes to Gu and Zhu’s qualifications for the game. Gu encountered no objection to her qualification because of her strong record, but Zhu faced heated controversy over the legitimacy of her qualification. Many think that her teammate Hongyi Chen, a native Chinese who won China a spot in women’s figure skating, should qualify instead of Zhu. Because videos from selection competitions were not released, many questioned whether Zhu got the quota fairly. People even started to speculate if her qualification for the Olympics was an exchange for her father, a leading AI scientist, leaving UCLA to work on China’s AI development. The hashtag “I have a scientist father” was trending before the game, paving the way for even greater criticisms.

During the Olympic games, Gu and Zhu had two extreme experiences. Gu first had a surprising win in the big air competition by landing a trick that she had never attempted before. Then she went on to win a silver in slopestyle and another gold in her strongest event, halfpipe. Gu not only made history for China but also for the world. She became the first freestyle skier to win three medals at a Winter Olympics. After the game, Gu received overwhelming praises and love from the Chinese public. She was called “the snow princess” and “the pride of China” on the Chinese internet. Unlike Gu’s dominance on snow, Zhu struggled on ice. In the figure skating team competition, Zhu popped and fell on multiple jumps, ranking last in both the short program and the free program. In the individual short program competition, Zhu ranked 27th out of 30 and failed to qualify for the free program. It was the first time that a Chinese women skater did not qualify since 2006. After disappointing performances, Zhu faced overwhelming criticism on the internet. Harsh comments online include calling Zhu “incapable” in comparison to the top Russian women and attacking Zhu’s Chineseness. Zhu was described as a privileged American kid who does not excel in skating but gets China’s spot at the Olympics because of her dad’s connections with the government[1]. The tense relations between China and the US add another layer of hostility towards Zhu.

The different attitudes that Chinese people hold towards Gu and Zhu are not only a matter of whether they achieved good results but also a matter of whether they could elicit national pride. The comparison of Gu and Zhu shows many nuances of Chinese nationalism. The first nuance is Chinese people’s ethnic identity. The concept of “Chineseness” is largely determined by the Chinese ethnicity and language. Being half-Chinese and half-Caucasian, Gu is naturally considered “the other” or a “half-foreigner”. Therefore, the expectation from the Chinese public for her to act like a Chinese is low. However, Gu is very familiar with the Chinese language and culture, and she has many relatable experiences with Chinese teenagers such as taking cram courses in China. Gu exceeds the expectation of a foreigner, and her deep ties with China make her warmly welcomed in China. Furthermore, for most Chinese people, a white, English-speaking person represents the typical image of a foreigner from western countries. Thus, many consider Gu choosing to represent China as a sign of China attracting westerners, which shows China’s strength in the global arena. However, Zhu does not have the advantage of low expectations. Having parents who immigrated from China to the US, Zhu’s family is seen as fully Chinese even with a shade of leaving China. Thus, Zhu is expected to have a thorough knowledge of Chinese culture and language. But in her previous interviews, Zhu showed a lack of knowledge by speaking mostly English and not knowing the meaning of her Chinese name. Although her Chinese has improved a lot ever since, the early interviews shape her image on the Chinese internet. Given Zhu’s identity as an ethnic Chinese, the potential for her to gain public support by showing her closeness to China is limited. 

The second nuance of Chinese nationalism is the public’s expectation of Olympics athletes’ devotion to the country. Since the Olympic games are designed to be a field for countries to compete for their overall athletic strength, people support native athletes as a venue to express love and support to their countries. For China, a country that is climbing up the ladder of world systems from behind, the Olympics is an important source of nationalism. Chinese Olympic athletes are given missions bigger than their own achievements, and they often express their devotion to the country after achieving results. Figure skating pair champion of the Beijing Winter Olympics Cong Han expressed his gratitude to the mother country after winning gold on Weibo, saying “it is extraordinarily meaningful to have the national flag raised in Beijing” [2]. China’s men figure skater Boyang Jin also posted on Weibo saying “my strength in this Olympics is brought by my country, and I want to say thank you to China, our leaders, my coach, and my family” [3]. Expectations from the public are manifested as different reactions that Gu and Zhu got. Although Gu has never openly expressed her devotion to China as native athletes do, her groundbreaking achievements in freestyle skiing, a weak discipline for China in the past, are more than enough for the public to recognize her as the “national hero”. On the other hand, Zhu has a harder case to prove because she was not China’s only choice for women’s figure skating, and she underperformed in the game in comparison to her competitors. Furthermore, some people think that Zhu chose to represent China not because of her love for China but because it was extremely difficult for her to represent the US in the Olympics. Currently, the US is stronger than China in women’s figure skating, having three skaters competed and ranked 7th, 10th, and 16th in this Olympics [4].  

The comparison between the Chinese public’s reactions to Eileen Gu and Yi Zhu during the Winter Olympics shows the dynamics of Chinese nationalism. To conclude, the difference between Gu’s and Zhu’s situations is caused by expectations given by the Chinese audience. Since the Chinese audience has a higher expectation for ethnic Chinese to express their “Chineseness”, Zhu is expected to be “Chinese” than Gu, but what they showed proves the opposite. Therefore, the Chinese audience is pleasantly surprised by Gu while disappointed by Zhu. However, public opinion of Zhu turns more positive after the Olympics because she has shown great improvement in Chinese compared to her earlier interviews. Furthermore, the expectation for Chinese athletes to devote themselves to the country makes Zhu hard to justify her choice to compete for China and her performance in the game. Attacks on Zhu’s capability have also reduced as videos for Olympic selection were released after the game, and they showed that Zhu earned the spot rightfully. But criticisms of her Olympic performances still remain. The generalization of the characteristics of Chinese nationalism in this article aims to present the overall situation, and it does not apply to every person.

[1] https://qz.com/2124042/chinas-disdain-for-us-born-zhu-yi-is-a-stark-contrast-to-its-love-for-eileen-gu/

[2]  Han Cong https://m.weibo.cn/2051260445/4739759743964437

[3]  Boyang Jin https://m.weibo.cn/2084693953/4735685305304046

[4]  https://results.isu.org/results/season2122/owg2022/CAT002RS.htm

[Image Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]