(Via Getty Images)
By: Lauren Gonitzke
Media reports have resorted to name-calling, and on social media, many have accused this teenager of being a “traitor.” Yet Gu’s choice to compete under another country’s flag is not unique. Olympians switching allegiances is common and there are countless examples of this. For instance, U.S.-born figure skater Zhu Yi also decided to compete under China’s flag in the 2022 Winter Olympics. In the 2020 Summer Olympics held in Tokyo last year, 34 out of 600 (about 5 percent) Olympians representing Team USA were foreign-born.
Yet, the deluge of headlines about why Gu would ever choose to represent China over the U.S. in the 2022 Olympic Games continue to be the most dominant theme of articles related to Gu instead of articles about her skiing abilities. Even after she won gold in the women’s freestyle skiing, the headlines didn’t fail to mention that Gu was born in the U.S., as if still attempting to claim her achievement for the United States despite her clear intent to compete for China.
Why is Eileen Gu so controversial?
Perhaps it is because as a young, biracial woman, she has dared to make a choice for herself.
In an Instagram post, she wrote about choosing to ski for China: “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”
Women have always been shamed for making decisions that ultimately only benefit them and demonstrate their autonomy—whether it be about choosing to stay single and child-free or having an abortion. Society tries to condition women to make choices against their best interest, and in favor of patriarchy instead.
The white heteropatriarchy does not approve of or support Gu’s choice to “abandon” her “native” U.S. in favor of China and feels entitled to her talent. As a result, the media is trying to punish Gu for making the “wrong” decision by constantly questioning her “loyalty” to the United States and creating an “ungrateful immigrant” narrative around a phenomenon that is commonplace among professional athletes. All the while, mainstream media has chosen to ignore the racism she has witnessed and experienced firsthand.
Gu has spoken out about an incident that took place during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when she was at a Walgreens in San Francisco with her 80-year-old grandmother, and a man ran in “screaming profanities about Asian people and how they were spreading the virus.” Gu said she had never felt fear like that before, and that she took her grandmother and ran out of the store. Even Gu’s liberal hometown of San Francisco witnessed an exponential increase of 567 percent in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021, which is an alarming pattern that has echoed all across the U.S. in the past year.
What loyalty do Asian athletes owe the United States with the kind of treatment they receive from the public? Even pro-snowboarder Chloe Kim, who is Korean-American, was told to “go back to China” when she was only 13 years old after winning her first major medal at the 2014 X Games.
The vitriol hurled at Gu clearly stems from deep-seated racism, xenophobia and misogyny.
While Team USA was still at zero gold medals and Gu won China’s third gold medal, #EileenGuTraitor was trending on the U.S. social media on February 8. It’s clear that U.S. hegemony is threatened by Gu’s politicized existence, which is acting as a direct counter-narrative to dispel the illusion of the “American Dream,” even as she has flourished in the wake of her 15-year-old self’s decision in 2019 to compete for her mother’s homeland in the 2022 Olympics. China is the country where she is achieving immense success, not the United States. She has set an example for others in the Chinese diaspora in the U.S. that they can “thrive more in other parts of the world. And that includes China.”
Gu has been well-received by the Chinese public, and the positive reaction to her victory in the women’s freeski big air competition from netizens temporarily overwhelmed Sina Weibo’s servers, a Twitter-like platform. According to Global Times, Gu “occupied about 30 of the top 50 topics on the trending list” in the wake of her historic safe landing of a double cork 1620. A drone light show displaying Gu’s image appeared in the night sky of Hainan as well to congratulate and celebrate her win. She has also scored many major brand sponsorships in China, and even appeared on the covers of Elle and Vogue China. It is a safe prediction to make that she will continue to gain brand deals and endorsements from companies on both sides of the Pacific.
If the United States is so eager to “claim” Gu, then the least public figures and media outlets could have done was amplify Gu’s original message regarding her motivation to compete for China, which was “to be a bridge between the United States and China while inspiring young women and helping China’s nascent winter-sports industry to grow.” Gu really had the potential to be uplifted as the hope for a new relationship between the United States and China, but instead, major publications like the Wall Street Journal continue to highlight how the “Chinese heritage” of some American Olympians could lead to them being “branded as traitors or villains.”
The mainstream media and Congress are all eager to reinforce the new cold war mentality in the West. There is no space for the recognition of the Chinese diaspora’s humanity, only suspicions of where their “true loyalties” lie—forever a foreigner, and depending on the geopolitical situation, seen as a yellow peril.
Gu has been witness to several online attacks, harassment and even death threats, but even so, she has already become an inspiration to many and has helped to validate and vindicate other Chinese Americans in their belief that there is pride to be had in their heritage. Gu has remained confident and steadfast in her stance, responding to a journalist when asked about the criticism she receives on social media: “It doesn’t really matter if other people are happy or not. I’m using my voice to create as much positive change as I can for the voices who listen to me.”
The burden of diplomatic relations and demonstrations of goodwill should not fall on an 18-year-old girl’s shoulder. People of Chinese descent are not the enemies of America, and yet they’ve already borne the brunt of casualties through the FBI’s China Initiative, decreased business in Chinatowns and the explosion of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. It’s time for the United States to end its hybrid war on China and stop using people with Chinese heritage as pawns to be caught in the crosshairs of conflict between the two countries.
China is not America’s enemy, but rather, a key partner with whom the U.S. needs to cooperate in order to address larger existential threats on the global stage, right from the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate crisis, and other future issues that might require synergistic efforts.
Ways to Take Action:
- Tell your Member of Congress war is NOT innovation! Keep militarism and xenophobia out of Make It in American (USICA) and the American COMPETES Act!
- Tell the NYT to leave Eileen Gu alone! China is not our enemy—Learn From Eileen, Don’t Demean!
- Follow the CODEPINK China Is Not Our Enemy campaign site for more actions & follow us on Twitter for more live updates!
Lauren Gonitzke is the campaign assistant for CODEPINK’s China is Not Our Enemy campaign. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature with a focus in creative writing alongside minors in both Chinese and Asian American studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked in communications, community building, and education.