Eileen Gu and the Chimerican Dream
The Olympic freestyle skier has stirred controversy for representing China. She is the product of a vanishing shared space between the Chinese and American elite.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu wins gold for China and draws criticism from the United States, the omicron variant spreads in vulnerable Hong Kong, and new polling reveals insights about Taiwanese attitudes toward the mainland.
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Eileen Gu Wins Gold—for China
Chinese American freestyle skier Eileen Gu is an even bigger star in China after winning gold at the 2022 Beijing Olympics on Tuesday. But she faces attacks in the United States for switching to China’s Olympic team—and possibly abandoning her U.S. citizenship to do so. Gu, now just 18 years old, began competing for China in 2019, amid the exposure of internment camps in Xinjiang and mass protests in Hong Kong.
All of this is a lot for a teenager to carry. But this week, Chinese social media was briefly consumed by more drama after Ray Sidney, an early Google employee, posted a picture of himself and a young Gu. Gu’s father’s identity is not public, and the idea that it might be Sidney led to online speculation. Sidney quickly said he was not Gu’s father but had dated her mother when Gu was young and remains friends with her.
The story speaks to a key fact about Gu. She represents a world that is vanishing: the shared space of the Chinese and American elite. Her mother, Yan Gu, is the daughter of a decorated Chinese government official; she came to the United States for postgraduate studies and later worked first for investment banks in the United States and as a venture capitalist between California and China.
Growing up, Eileen Gu enjoyed the power of wealth in both China and the United States, attending a very expensive private school in the United States and taking math Olympiad classes in Beijing before getting into Stanford University.
The privilege involved in hopping between San Francisco and Shanghai or New York and Beijing was once common among a certain subset. This group included children of Communist Party leaders, such as businessman Bo Guagua (son of the later disgraced politician Bo Xilai) and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze, who both attended Harvard University. But some Beijing upper-middle class families who attained moderate wealth from the capital’s real estate boom also placed their kids in U.S. high schools or obtained investor visas for themselves.
This so-called Chimerican elite represented a tiny fraction of the Chinese population, but a tiny fraction of 1.3 billion people is still a lot of people. Their lifestyle was premised on easy movement between the two countries, enjoying the freedoms of one and the privileges of the other—and transferring money with relative ease as well. That distinguished them from poorer immigrants to the United States, for whom borders were an obstacle.
In the United States, Gu’s mother enjoyed the ability to raise a child on her own without significant legal problems. Single parenthood, which was illegal in China until 1997, is still difficult there—not only because of social stigma but also because of fines and punishments for having children outside of marriage and the challenge of obtaining legal certificates for those children. In part, the Chinese public is fascinated with the question of Gu’s father’s identity because single parents are so rare outside of poor or rural areas.
But that easy movement has greatly eroded in recent years, at first by questions of politics and identity and then by the coronavirus pandemic. Investment visas, one of the most common entry points to the United States, came under scrutiny during the Trump administration, as did visas for Chinese students. Meanwhile, ties to the United States became a source of political risk in China. And under Xi, it became much tougher to get money out of the country (even by illegal means), especially after the 2015-2016 Chinese stock market crisis.
The ultimate way to span the Pacific Ocean was with two passports, but China’s citizenship law doesn’t allow dual nationality. In many cases, individuals acquired citizenship in the United States or elsewhere and held onto their Chinese passports without informing the government. This practice was particularly common among celebrities, but in the last few years, Chinese actors, singers, and sports stars faced pressure to abandon their foreign nationality amid growing xenophobia.
Gu has avoided questions about whether she’s given up her U.S. citizenship to acquire a Chinese passport. Under the law, this should have happened. But Gu knows that she would face even harsher criticism in the United States if she gave up her passport. If the Chinese authorities agreed to a special deal to let her keep it—as I suspect—she would also face backlash from the Chinese public.
The harsh words leveled at Gu by many U.S. commentators also speak to the change in perception of those living in both countries. Imagine an equivalent figure at the Beijing Summer Olympics 14 years ago: The 2008 Gu may have become a symbol of the two countries’ growing closeness. Instead, the Chinese public and press are using her to bash the West again while members of the Western press and public see her as a traitor.
What We’re Following
Hong Kong’s COVID-19 outbreak. Like mainland China, Hong Kong officials have attempted a zero-COVID-19 policy, but the relative freedoms of the city have made strict controls less sustainable. Harsh new lockdowns and other measures have done little to stop the explosive spread of the omicron variant, with more than 1,200 new infections this week alone.
Hong Kong’s government has recommitted itself to a dynamic zero-COVID-19 position, arguing that infections will happen but can be rapidly eliminated. The city has a strict quarantine policy for visitors, but its level of internal control and surveillance doesn’t yet match that of the mainland. Hong Kong’s density has enabled rapid spread among a relatively unvaccinated population.
The city has one of the lowest rates of vaccine uptake in Asia, driven largely by strong distrust of the Hong Kong government, seen as a puppet of Beijing, and of the Chinese-made vaccines favored by the authorities. Older people are most at risk, with just around one-third of people over age 65 vaccinated.
Why Taiwanese reject Beijing. Significant new polling in Taiwan suggests that hostility to the mainland is driven by a rejection of the Chinese Communist Party’s politics, not Chinese cultural identity. Chinese media often attempts to paint a shared cultural heritage with Taiwan as making a reunion inevitable. That is a flawed and ethnonationalist thesis, but it has led some mainland critics to see independently minded Taiwanese as rejecting the very idea of that heritage.
However, the new study confirms that many Taiwanese are content with the idea of a shared history and culture. They just don’t want to live under a dictatorship, especially after winning their own fight for democracy in the 1980s.
Macao gambling takes another hit. Chinese authorities have swept up another big name in the Macao gambling world. Wen Ling Chan, CEO of major casino operator Macau Legend, was arrested on money laundering charges last weekend as part of a crackdown on cross-border gambling. Macao once played an important role in the Chinese money laundering ecology, washing money from the mainland as “gambling losses” and then returning that money to the supposedly unlucky gamblers’ foreign bank accounts.
The arrest follows the arrest of Alvin Chau last November, which dealt a serious blow to Macao’s junket industry—luring big rollers from the mainland with plentiful perks—and has left the city’s wounded gaming industry struggling for life.
Tech and Business
Industrial transformation. Photos of the Big Air Shougang Olympic skiing venue have drawn plentiful online commentary, but the site reflects the industrial and environmental history of both the Olympics and Beijing. The site’s dramatic slope has a post-industrial backdrop, evidence of Shougang steel factory’s the transformation into an exhibition site. The factory, which operated for more than 80 years, was closed amid attempts to clean up Beijing’s air before the 2008 Olympics, which produced so-called Olympic blue skies.
But the polluting steel production didn’t cease: Shougang’s operations simply moved, instead contributing to massive air pollution in the nearby industrial city of Tangshan. Relocating polluting industries away from the capital to poorer and less high-profile cities has become a common tactic—but one that sometimes comes back to bite leaders, as dirty air often swirls around neighboring Hebei province and hits Beijing anyway.
Trade deal amounts to zero. China not only brought none of the promised $200 billion worth of goods it agreed to as part of the so-called phase one trade deal signed with the Trump administration in January 2020, but it also didn’t even return its import levels to those before the trade war, according to a new report.
At the time, the deal was heralded as a victory by the White House, but with U.S. tariffs and China’s retaliatory measures still in effect, businesses had almost no appetite to follow through. The pandemic’s economic blows doomed any prospect of success, and the Biden administration has not expressed much of a desire to reverse many Trump-era trade policies.
Meanwhile, China is increasingly determined to throw its own economic might around, whether directed at the United States or much smaller countries, such as Lithuania.
Censorship overload. A content manager at video-sharing firm Bilibili has died from a heart attack, allegedly from the stress of work. The company denies that the cause of death was linked to work but has nevertheless pledged to hire 1,000 more content managers—a job similar to positions in the West that focus on removing violent or obscene content but also involves political censorship in China.
Failure to act rapidly to remove forbidden content can result in serious punishment by the government. Technology firms have been under growing pressure to police their content as internet controls grew tighter in recent years, putting greater stress on their teams.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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