Californian Eileen Gu’s decision to compete for her mother’s homeland rather than America has incensed a nation wracked by insecurity over China
Eileen Gu is an 18-year-old Chinese American Olympian from San Francisco who made the decision to compete for China, her mother’s native country, in the Winter Olympics, rather than the United States. On Tuesday, Eileen won a gold medal in her ski event – an outstanding achievement, but one that was quickly mired in political controversy.
While her victory was widely praised and celebrated on the Chinese internet, and heralded by the Foreign Ministry, many Americans reacted with disdain and attacked her. Fox News' Will Cain effectively branded her “shameful” for “betraying the United States”, accusing her of having pursued her career pathway “for money.” Fellow Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson called her “dumb” and said Americans should feel “revulsion,” while notorious anti-China journalist Melissa Chan accused her of being naive and a "propaganda tool.”
Mainstream media outlets relentlessly quizzed her on her nationality, and the coverage largely focused on this, not her sporting success. The Global Times, the Chinese state media outlet, interpreted this as an inability by America to come to terms with China's rise and success in the world, stating: “The US has grown to be a global power by attracting global talent. Now Washington criticizes those who choose Beijing over it, displaying American elites' calculated snobbery.”
The row over Gu has become a microcosm of China-United States tensions and the broader political conflict around them. That is, the inflammation of mutual nationalist anger and the increasing sense of insecurity that has dogged the American psyche surrounding China, the fear of its own displacement in a changing world, the fear of a loss of status, the twilight of its own unipolarity, and the desire to re-establish America's rightful position. Gu's achievements have been overshadowed by the firestorm, which follows America’s wholesale politicization of the Winter Olympics as part of its propaganda war against China, which has poisoned the media environment.
Throughout the event, the narrative has been relentlessly negative, from astroturfing the complaints of athletes, to hammering endless reports about Uighurs and the ‘missing’ tennis player Peng Shuai, to attacking the country’s zero-Covid
policies, and so on. This politicized narrative seeks to deprive China of any increased legitimacy or positive perceptions from the event. So the story of an American-born athlete achieving gold for China descends into a political tug of war, despite the fact that it is very common in all sports for athletes to choose to play for other countries through their parentage.
Whilst some in America cry foul, Gu becomes a key figure for China in how it strives to present itself, as a country that is open, achieving, and rising, and capable of attracting talent from all over the world. America’s vitriolic response to her exposes its total unwillingness to accept why one might legitimately identify with China. The US has whipped up a binary narrative depicting everything as being orchestrated as a villainous plot by the Communist Party, which does not authentically represent the will of the Chinese people, as per the Western assumption of “enlightenment.”
In line with these assumptions, American politicians and media outlets effectively dehumanize all Chinese people as spies, thieves, and propagandists, who inauthentically toe the party line. China’s rise is portrayed as being at the expense of America through “theft” and so-called “unfair practices” (like producing better goods, more cheaply, than American businesses can).
Anyone who contradicts this narrative is dismissed as paid, brainwashed, or in cahoots with the Communist Party. The ability for balanced discussion has been closed down amid surging new McCarthyism. This phenomenon has been shown relentlessly in the saga with Peng Shuai, where the mainstream media and the Women's Tennis Association will simply not leave her alone or trust anything she says, unless she gives them the anti-China narrative they want to hear.
The idea that a talented and high-achieving American-born girl could opt for China above the United States is simply impossible for the average American to understand. She must, therefore, be a traitor, an opportunist, or in it for the money. A brilliant act of athleticism poisoned by an orchestrated hate campaign.
Yet much to the dismay of America, Gu has brushed off the criticism of her. She has declared that she has no regrets and says China is where she finds her belonging. Who are we to judge this? And who are we to show resentment towards her? Gu, who decided in 2019 to compete for China (where she is well known as Gu Ailing), has an incredible future ahead of her, and the US reactions to her astounding victory only show how ugly, how bitter, and how poisonous America has become in its approach towards China. It is the collective loss of sanity of an entire nation.