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Despite Trying to Keep Politics Out of Her Stardom, US-born Skier Eileen Gu Could Face a Political Dilemma in China

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: February 17, 2022
eileen-gu-olympics
Ailing Eileen Gu of Team China poses for a pictures after placing first in the Women's Freeski Halfpipe competition at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain on January 08, 2022 in Mammoth, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Commentary

American-born skier and gold medalist Eileen Gu could be facing a complicated road as she is embraced by a multitude of Chinese fans and showered with millions of dollars in endorsement deals. 

Yet, she faces growing controversy for contradicting statements where she openly supports the Chinese regime but inadvertently sheds light on the plight faced by the country’s 1.4 billion citizens who lack basic liberties such as access to an uncensored Internet and the freedom of expression.

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While speaking to reporters today, the 18-year-old ski champion said, “People sometimes don’t know what to do with other people when they’re not fitting in a box.” 

“They say, ‘Is she Chinese? Is she American? Is she a model? Is she a student? Why is she trying to change the world when she’s only 18?’,” Gu said when asked about her astronomical rise to fame.

“I’m not trying to solve political problems right now,” she added, “And I’m aware that I’m not able to do everything I want to do at this exact moment.”

Controversial comments

Gu has been under scrutiny for deciding to compete for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the U.S at this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, despite the communist regime’s widespread human rights abuses. 

Born to a Chinese mother, and an American father, Gu said she’s spent at least a quarter of her life in China. Her origin story, as she tells it, begins with the time she pitched the idea for China’s first slopestyle ski event at age 9 — and won. 

At this year’s Games, she first claimed a narrow victory in the women’s freeski big air competition on Feb. 8, earning her much praise on Weibo — China’s version of Twitter. The win even attracted the attention of Communist Party cadres, who encouraged her and her team to “keep scoring glory for the Party.” 

Gu’s first gold medal win for China was so heavily celebrated that according to state-run media, it temporarily overloaded the servers. Of the top 10 trending topics on Weibo, five were dedicated to adoration for the San Francisco native, where she was dubbed the “snow princess.”

Now an Olympic champion — with a silver medal added on Tuesday’s (Feb. 15) slope-style event — the young athlete has faced growing scrutiny after she nonchalantly said that anyone in China can download a virtual private network (VPN) to access the free internet. Her Weibo post was then censored and deleted by China’s tightly controlled Internet scrubs.

Though Chinese law does not recognize dual citizenship, it’s unclear whether Gu gave up her U.S. nationality to receive a Chinese passport in order to compete for the host nation. Gu herself has also dodged questions in regards to her citizenship status when the issue is brought up in interviews. 

Athletes competing at the Beijing Olympics have special access to websites that are normally banned by the authorities, including Western social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. 

Since choosing to side with China in 2019, Gu has said on multiple occasions that her goal in competing professionally is to “encourage more girls and women to take up winter sports” – aligning with the Chinese government’s pledge to inspire 300 million people to hit the ice or snow.

‘Worsening US-China relationship’ could complicate Gu’s status in China

Nikkei Asia reported that Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief and now columnist for China’s state-run Global Times, “threw cold water on the Gu love fest this past weekend.” Hu argued that her success should not be seen as the “glory of China,” but only the “glory of China’s Olympic team.”

Warning against praising Gu on patriotic grounds, he wrote on his Weibo account that she would most likely live in the U.S. for the next few years as she has announced that she will be attending Stanford University in California starting in the fall. Hu added that it was unclear which country and nationality she would ultimately choose.

“She said she’s ‘American in America, Chinese in China’ – I think that’s her honest self-identity, and she hopes it will work out like that,” Hu wrote. “But the reality may not turn out as she wishes. The worsening U.S.-China relationship almost blocked such a path. It’s also hard to bypass legal complications.”

Hu also advised that “Chinese media promotions on her should keep it general and blurred, in order to prevent complications in the future,” stressing that “China’s national honor and credibility can’t be risked” over any individual, even if they are well embraced by the public.