Opinion | In the name of freedom, let Eileen Gu choose
By Philip Yeung, a university teacher
If there is any undisputed super-star basking in the brilliance of the Beijing Winter Olympics, it is Eileen Gu.
It's not just her heart-stopping, gold-winning performance at the Free-ski Big Air competition that has turned her into a household name on both sides of the Pacific. It is also because she is squeezed at the intersection of sport and geopolitics, tip-toeing through the treacherous minefield of US-China conflict.
To China's billion plus people, Eileen is perfect. People around the world think so too. But on the other side of the Pacific, she has a target on her back.
Death threats greeted her announcement of becoming a naturalized citizen of China, her mother's birth country. She was only 15 at the time.
At 18, she is already larger than life.
On the world's biggest sporting stage, one question looms large. Does America still believe in democracy? Doesn't it always trumpet that democracy is about the freedom to make personal choices? If so, why are Americans begrudging Eileen hers?
This is by no means the first time that international athletes change their citizenship. The only difference is that this change of citizenship is in the opposite direction: from "democratic" America to "repressive" China. America is stung and humiliated by her gutsy choice.
This recalls another momentous choice. Qian Xuesen the father of China's rocket science was deported by xenophobic America. One US general said he was worth 25 divisions in military terms.
Eileen doesn't defect and isn't deported, she straddles two countries and two cultures. In educational terms, she is worth at least 25 universities.
Riding high on her hyphen, as a Chinese-American or American-Chinese, Eileen's true impact is not just in the number of medals she wins, but in the number of lives she changes.
The fuss over Gu is not about ideology. If China were weak and backward, there wouldn't be much of a ripple. Remember the ping-pong diplomacy when China was dirt-poor? Sport was then used to thaw a frozen relationship. This time, it is used to poison it further. Eileen is seen as having gone over to "the enemy".
Western journalists are quick to pounce on her for hypocrisy, if not inconsistency. Brook Larmer, writing freelance for the Economist, accuses her of campaigning for "Black Lives Matter" and against Anti-Asian hate crimes, and yet remains conspicuously silent on China's so-called human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Is this accusation fair? I think not.
In the US, she has seen racism up close and personal. She can feel the fear of black people who died needlessly at the hands of trigger-happy white police officers. The hate crimes against Asians in America are too close for comfort. She can taste her feelings.
But Xinjiang is ten thousand miles away. Whatever noise she hears about China comes to her second hand, filtered by hostile sources. She has no objective basis to form her own judgment as to the truthfulness or lack of it in these allegations. As for Hong Kong, rioters who rampaged violently like US Capitol thugs are glorified as freedom fighters.
You are asking an 18-year-old without access to facts on the ground to render a verdict on far-away Xinjiang, when the waters have been muddied by dirty politics.
Western reporters are not qualified to make that call either; all they have are hear-say or sob stories from purported or perhaps planted accusers. Without first-hand knowledge, they are ill-qualified to judge. What they have is manufactured American hysteria. What happens to doing due diligence?
China-bashing is the low-hanging fruit in the West. These days, all you need to do is get on Fox News or social media to vent your anger at China. No evidence is required. No matter how fact-free or wild, charges against China are accepted at face value.
That's not journalism. It's an all-out smear campaign against a country that is basically minding its own business.
Before you denounce Eileen as a US traitor, consider this: Had she competed as a US athlete she would be just another medalist among many. By wearing a Chinese team uniform she has become a powerful evangelist for the sport, as the unequaled ambassador for the games. Perhaps the IOC should give her a medal.
I say Eileen is worth more than 25 universities, because she is the spark to rethink China's education, away from examination obsession towards personal fulfillment. She personifies self-belief, risk-taking and being at one's best. The unsung hero is her mother Gu Yan who famously said that she doesn't want her daughter to be just another Ivy Leaguer but someone who never stops learning. An all-rounder, a hot fashion model, cool at the keyboard and on the ski slopes, she is what every Chinese mother wants her child to be---competitive yet compassionate towards fellow athletes who falter, gracious in the face of spiky questions from cynical reporters, unafraid to make life decisions.
In sport, breaking boundaries, Eileen has gone where no human beings have gone before. She refuses to be a prisoner of other people's prejudice. Like the Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, she belongs to the world, a dream-maker at only 18.
On and off the slope, she shows us that nothing is impossible. She seizes her moment and never looks back.