Olympic win brings U.S. skater Nathan Chen little love in China

U.S. Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen is an example of how being Chinese-American can be a double-edged sword today in China.

The 22-year-old took the top prize on Thursday at the Winter Olympics in the men’s figure skating event. But his record-beating performance, which sealed Chen’s reputation as the top skater in the world, promoted more castigation on Chinese social media than it did elation.

A hashtag discussing Chen’s victory was the second-highest trending on the Twitter-like Weibo platform shortly after his win. Many of the comments, however, were negative, including some users who decried his performance as mediocre and “ape-like,” while others called him a “banana,” a derogatory term used to describe people of Chinese descent who are Westernized.

Other attacks took on a more nationalistic tone — Chen was accused of “insulting China” due to an interview before the games in which he spoke about China’s human rights record and said the Olympics were “bringing it to light.” Others criticized him for using music in a 2018 performance from the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which tells the story of a dissident Chinese woman who fled to the U.S.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese-language report of the event by state news agency Xinhua, Chen’s victory received only two brief mentions, while the headline spotlighted the performance of Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu — a huge fan favorite in China — and China’s Jin Boyang. Hanyu finished fourth while Jin was ninth.

This year’s Olympics have highlighted the increasingly fraught atmosphere that American athletes of Chinese heritage must navigate in China, against a backdrop of bubbling tensions between the countries and an increasingly assertive China. By contrast, when Beijing hosted the summer games in 2008, Chinese-American athletes were more warmly welcomed and even seen as ambassadors who could help act as bridges between the two countries.

American Nathan Chen in action during the free skating portion of the men's single skating event at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Thursday. | REUTERS
American Nathan Chen in action during the free skating portion of the men’s single skating event at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Thursday. | REUTERS

That welcome is less certain today. One Chinese-American athlete who is wildly popular in China is Eileen Gu, the U.S.-born freestyle skier who decided to compete for China this Olympics and who is on track to win three golds at the games. However, figure skater Zhu Yi, who was similarly born in the U.S. but chose to compete for China, became the target of online abuse after she fell multiple times in competition.

At a news conference following his victory, Chen, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from China, said that he still has lots of family in and close ties to China. When asked about his feelings about the online criticism directed against Chinese-American athletes, he said that he’s stayed off social media in recent days.

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