WASHINGTON, DC — When Soong Mei-ling, then the first lady of China as Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, arrived in the US for a visit in 1943, she was decked out in the finery and extravagance appropriate to her role. The former missionary Geraldine Fitch, a supporter of China’s nationalist government, described the visit approvingly: “Restauranteur [sic] and laundrymen (and none better) the American people knew, but now they know there are the educated, the cultured, the beautiful, the tolerant, the Christian in China as well.” Such patronising views were commonplace in the shadows of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been in place in the US since 1882, though restaurants and laundries continued to toil on in Chinatowns across America.
In the eight decades since that visit, one prevailing norm has endured. From Soong’s extravagant arrival to the freestyle skier Eileen Gu’s triumphant emergence at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, despite the changing tides of Sino-American relations, elites, no matter their diaspora, have been able to carve out special niches of their own.
Owing to a combination of geopolitics and a gold medal run, Gu is now highly visible in two simultaneous but separate spaces: a Chinese audience in a tightly controlled media environment, and an American public that tends to alternate between demonising and ignoring the Chinese state, with little room for manoeuvre between the two. Television anchors and pundits from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson to the former Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, have raised questions about her loyalty in deciding to compete for the Chinese Olympic team, citing Chinese human rights issues when questioning the morality of Gu’s choice. “Did she abandon her citizenship or not?” asked McCaskill on Twitter (China does not allow dual nationality, so unless an exception has been made for Gu, she would presumably have had to give up her American citizenship to compete for China). Carlson thought that the choice deserved “collective revulsion” from Americans. Defences of Gu emerged to rebut these claims, including opinions from Chinese diaspora writers that Gu’s pride in her heritage was commendable.
Citizenship has never saved Asian Americans from racism, nor has loyalty to US Olympic teams. The othering of minority athletes, particularly those of Asian descent, has a lengthy and ugly history within US sports culture. Figure skater Tara Lipinski’s victory over Michelle Kwan in 1998 earned the headline “American beats out Kwan”, despite the fact that both were US citizens. When Mirai Nagasu earned the United States a bronze in the figure skating team event at the 2018 Winter Olympics after landing a triple axel, the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss quoted a line about immigrants from the musical Hamilton approvingly. American gymnast Sunisa Lee, fresh off a gold medal run in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, was told to “go back where she came from” and pepper-sprayed while in Los Angeles in 2021.
While the marginalisation and pain of Asian American identity is an integral part of how Eileen Gu’s Olympic debut has been viewed, so too is her visibility within China’s current social environment. Gu’s Han Chinese heritage through her mother is marginalised within the United States, but carries power in the People’s Republic of China, where the ethnic group rules both politically and culturally. Her efforts to connect by learning the language of Mandarin Chinese, her relationship to her maternal grandparents and her embrace of the clean celebrity politics of China’s internet culture have helped her star rise to extraordinary heights with audiences and advertisers alike. It has helped that her mother financed her education, including tutoring in Beijing’s affluent Haidian district, and skiing lessons to push her skills to Olympic standards.
Though rarely available to the American press, Gu has been quick on the draw in her responses to comments on her personal social media accounts. Responding to criticism that Chinese citizens do not have access to the same social media platforms she does, she responded that “anyone can download a VPN, it’s literally free on the app store”, punctuated with a thumbs-up emoji. When shared on microblogging platform Weibo, the screenshot of her comment was subsequently censored, but not before valid observations had been posted in response, pointing out that most Chinese VPN users make use of these tools at the risk of prosecution and law enforcement action. “There is no [VPN] on the national app stores,” one person commented. Another added, “every day I see posts I wrote disappear, it’s literally free.”
Mobility and relatively unrestricted internet speech are not privileges afforded to Eileen Gu alone. While most fans are adoring of her triumph, the digs at her comment’s naivete highlights the rarefied space in which she dwells. As long as Gu and her mother conduct themselves within the increasingly tight guardrails of Chinese celebrity, they are free to rake in endorsement money, comment on American social issues and tell critical TikTok users to “cry about” her decision to compete for China.
What Gu cannot do is publicly question the politics of the flag emblazoned on her jacket, and on the conduct of those in power. Tennis star Peng Shuai, who attended Gu’s final run and is heavily monitored after posting an accusation of sexual assault against China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in November 2021, knows this all too well.
Like Soong Mei-ling, Gu is cultured and cosmopolitan, speaking both English and Chinese fluently, and able to navigate up-scale social circles in both Beijing and San Francisco without issue. Her privilege and studied political correctness help to cushion her against the worst that awaits ordinary citizens of China and the United States in the years of potential diplomatic and cultural turmoil ahead. Today’s restaurateurs and laundrymen in both countries will have to hope for the best, as they always have.