August 14, 2022

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An American Exertions Marketplace Thriller

HONG KONG—When three-time world champion Nathan Chen was preparing for the 2022 Beijing Games in...

HONG KONG—When three-time world champion
Nathan Chen
was preparing for the 2022 Beijing Games in October, his Chinese fans posted a video of him telling the country’s state broadcaster how excited he was to compete in his mother’s hometown.
about one of the most decorated Chinese-American figure skater in history on the popular Chinese social-media platform Weibo attracted a tepid 152 likes.

Meanwhile, other Weibo posts listing the U.S. Figure Skating’s 2022 Olympics roster attracted a string of comments complaining that Mr. Chen and
Vincent Zhou,
another Chinese-American on the team, had insulted China at a news conference earlier in October, when they had tentatively backed a teammate’s criticism of China’s human-rights record.
The contrast illustrates a striking shift in the landscape faced by this current generation of top Chinese-American athletes as they compete in the land of their ancestors.
Previous Chinese-American sporting stars such as tennis’s
Michael Chang
and figure skating’s
Michelle Kwan
enjoyed almost instantaneous hero status in China merely for being ethnically Chinese. Messrs. Chen and Zhou not only won’t enjoy that same automatic adulation, they are competing in a political environment that could lead to them being branded as traitors or villains.

Figure skater Vincent Zhou wrote on social media, ‘I am proud to be Asian-American,’ when he announced his musical choice for his Olympic performance.


Valery Sharifulin/Zuma Press

“No matter what they’ll say or do, they can’t win,” says
Mark Dreyer,
founder of Beijing-based website China Sports Insider and author of “Sporting Superpower,” a book about China’s sports industry. “Someone will always be annoyed.”
This change reflects broader tectonic shifts, according to sports and political experts. Foremost among these is a new geopolitical reality, in which U.S.-China relations have flipped from engagement to confrontation, driven by a hardening of politics in both countries.
In this new environment, China’s leader
Xi Jinping
has stoked a nationalistic fervor that sees the Communist Party as the rightful representative of ethnic Chinese communities around the globe. Anti-China rhetoric from the White House during
Donald Trump’s
presidency further fueled that nationalism, and sparked arguments from some in China that criticism of the Communist Party was contributing to a rise in attacks on Asians in the U.S.
Chinese-Americans once regarded as cultural ambassadors, able to bridge different histories and world views, now face questions over their loyalties.

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In the U.S., a recent protest against the 2022 Winter Olympics and China’s human-rights record took place at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.


josh edelson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The shift also illustrates changes within sports itself: the added scrutiny athletes face in the social-media era, and the increasing melding together in the U.S. of politics and athletic competition.
Both Messrs. Chen and Zhou have referenced their Chinese heritage in their skating. During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Mr. Chen skated to music from the biopic “Mao’s Last Dancer” for his long program. Last year, Mr. Zhou said that he would skate to the main score of the Academy Award-winning martial arts movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for his long program.
“I am proud of my heritage, I am proud of my culture, and I am proud to be Asian-American,” Mr. Zhou wrote of the musical choice on both Instagram and Weibo.
Despite Mr. Zhou’s outreach to Chinese audiences, fewer than 29,000 people follow him on Weibo, where his note about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” notched only a few hundred likes. Mr. Chen’s most popular fan account on Weibo has around 9,000 followers.
Their reception stands in stark contrast to support for Chinese figure-skating hopeful
Jin Boyang,
whose Weibo account has 1.5 million followers. Yuzuru Hanyu, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in male figure skating from Japan—China’s biggest strategic rival in the region—has 1.8 million followers on the platform.
Both Messrs. Chen and Zhou declined to comment. The pair won silver together in the multiday team competition, which concluded Monday. Mr. Zhou tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday evening, putting the rest of his Olympic performances in jeopardy.
Previous Chinese-Americans athletes seldom faced questions about divided loyalties.
Recalling his victory at the French Open in 1989, shortly after the killing of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, Mr. Chang said it was “an opportunity to bring a smile upon Chinese people’s faces around the world when there wasn’t a whole lot to smile about.”
The tennis star began visiting China in the 1990s and served as goodwill ambassador for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. “I could feel that the Chinese stood behind me,” he said.

President George W. Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao and figure skater Michelle Kwan during a lunch at the White House in 2006.

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Roger Wollenberg/Press Pool

In 2006, Ms. Kwan attended a state lunch with then-President
George W. Bush
and then-Chinese leader
Hu Jintao,
winning plaudits in both the U.S. and Chinese media.
Ms. Kwan didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Now, amid a surge in digital nationalism, more and more people of Chinese ethnicity have found themselves caught in the crosshairs for expressing negative opinions on China.
Last year, jubilation over
Chloé Zhao,
the first woman of Chinese descent to win the Oscar for best director, turned sour after Chinese social-media users circulated an old interview in which she referred to growing up in China, “where there are lies everywhere.”
Meanwhile, American sports have also changed.
The emergence of movements such as Black Lives Matter and surging interest in gender issues has shifted the landscape for American athletes, who previously existed in a world in which sporting bodies tried to keep overt political debate out, said
Susan Brownell,
a professor of sports anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Freestyle skier Eileen Gu grew up in the U.S. but decided to represent China at the Olympics, which she said prompted an outpouring of vitriol.


Harry How/Getty Images

“Nowadays, there is even an expectation that they should take a stance and speak out on political issues,” she said, adding that criticism of China’s human-rights record is likely to play well with an American public that is increasingly critical of Beijing.
She also pointed to Eileen Gu, who grew up and trained in the U.S. but decided to represent China at the Games, as a potential mirror image to Messrs. Chen and Zhou’s situation. Ms. Gu has mentioned in previous interviews that her choice prompted an outpouring of vitriol and even death threats.
In Beijing, organizers are attempting to maintain an apolitical environment in keeping with International Olympic Committee rules, which have long forbidden political protest at the Games.
Outside of Beijing, activists have used the occasion of the Olympics to criticize China’s efforts to suppress dissent and its campaign to forcibly assimilate mostly Muslim ethnic minorities. The U.S., Australia and the U.K. are staging a diplomatic boycott of the Games in protest of China’s human-rights record.
China’s government has rejected those criticisms, saying they amount to interference in the country’s internal affairs. Beijing has also accused Washington of trying to politicize the Games.

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In October, Messrs. Chen and Zhou were asked to respond to comments by American ice dancer
Evan Bates,
who had earlier answered a question about China’s human-rights record by saying “it tears at the fabric of humanity” and who had described the situation for China’s Muslims as terrible and awful.
“I agree with what Evan was saying,” Mr. Chen told reporters. “I think that for a greater change to occur, there must be power that is beyond the Olympics.”
“We echo Evan’s sentiment and definitely would still like to focus on our own jobs,” Mr. Zhou said.
Screenshots and excerpts of the comments made their way onto the Chinese internet. A group of social-media users seized on the quotes to accuse the two U.S. skaters of betrayal and hypocrisy, while at the same time they expressed support for Mr. Hanyu, the Japanese figure skater.
“Don’t fly under the ‘Chinese descent’ flag to gain affection on the one hand, while doing such disgusting things on the other hand,” one Weibo user wrote in a comment that garnered close to 1,000 likes.
“Yuzuru Hanyu has always been friendly to our country in his interviews, so I feel more at ease to like him,” said 21-year-old Estelle Cen, who studies in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Athletes such as Messrs. Chen and Zhou are victims of the geopolitical moment, said
Gordon H. Chang,
a professor of Asian-American history at Stanford University.
“They shouldn’t be obligated to take a stance on Chinese issues just because they are of Chinese descent,” he said. “They should be allowed to just be athletes.”

The Beijing Olympics are set to be the first Winter Games to rely entirely on artificial snow. WSJ examines the logistics of snowmaking and what it may mean for future host cities. Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters

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