Eileen Gu angers Chinese fans with ‘unpatriotic’ farewell message and video showing her flying private

Society & Culture

Eileen Gu caught flak in the U.S. for representing China at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Now some Chinese social media users are criticizing her for returning to the U.S.

A JD.com advertisement with an image of Olympic skiing star Eileen Gu at a bus stop in Beijing. Tingshu Wang/Reuters

You may have thought you’d heard the end of Eileen Gu’s citizenship controversy when the 2022 Winter Olympics concluded in February, but it’s not over. The latest chapter in the controversy surrounding Gu’s nationality and loyalty began last week when the 18-year-old American-born athlete broke the news to her 6.7 million fans on Weibo that she was leaving China, where she is known by her Chinese name Gǔ Àilíng 谷爱凌 and has been belovedly nicknamed “Snow Princess.” 

“Thank you China,” she wrote on April 27 in a Weibo post, which includes a Chinese flag, a heart emoji, and a collage of photos from her months-long stay in the country. Around the same time, Gu also posted on Instagram, saying: “Thank you China for the unforgettable few months & for the endless love.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Gu switched national affiliations in 2019 to represent China in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Gu also deferred her admission to the prestigious Stanford University for a year in order to compete in the Games. But going back to the U.S. for school was always her plan, Gu stated in multiple interviews during the Olympics. 

Eileen Gu, role model for China or opportunist?

Nonetheless, Gu’s farewell post triggered swift and strong reactions from Chinese internet users. In a matter of hours, her Weibo post sparked thousands of responses, which quickly snowballed into “Gu Ailing posts on Weibo to thank China (#谷爱凌发博说谢谢中国#), a top trending hashtag on the social media site last Thursday. As of today, her message has 431,000 likes and 77,000 comments.

While some of Gu’s supporters thanked her back for representing China during the Beijing Games and being a role model for young women in the country, the post also set off a firestorm of negative reactions that ranged from grave disappointment to downright anger, with some of Gu’s most ardent fans turning into her toughest critics. 

Many people took aim at the tone of Gu’s farewell message, saying that she sounded like a foreigner purposefully maintaining an emotional distance from Chinese people. Others pointed to the wording as evidence and questioned why Gu didn’t refer to China as her “motherland” like other Chinese athletes. “It’s obvious that China is just a travel destination to her,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

The criticism piled on, with some people calling Gu an “opportunist” capitalizing on China’s vast market potential to advance her athletic career and make a fortune. But others came to Gu’s defense and called out her critics for having “unfair” expectations for the skiing prodigy, who they said was just a young woman reluctantly caught between two countries and forced by many to choose a side. 

“Gu brought Olympic medals to China. What have you accomplished? Bashing her on the internet?” a Weibo user slapped back at one of  Gu’s critics (in Chinese). “Even if she competed for China just for money, I would be totally cool with that. Wouldn’t it be amazing if China could attract all the talents in the U.S. with strong financial prospects?” another person wrote (in Chinese).

Weibo started restricting discussions about Gu’s goodbye post on Thursday evening. But Gu, seemingly unaware of the controversy, continued to share posts documenting her journey back to the U.S in the following days, and one of the videos ended up adding more fuel to the fire.

The clip, filmed by Gu and posted to Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — over the weekend, features her grandmother having a running workout in what appears to be a private jet. “My grandma is jogging at 900 mph,” the caption reads. Hours after sharing the video, Gu replied to her own clip in the comments, saying, “Hahahaha this is hilarious.” Her location, displayed on Douyin, was in the U.S.

Blasted on both sides of the Pacific 

Since Gu announced that she would compete for her mother’s country of birth, China, back in 2019, the skier has been bombarded with queries about her loyalties.  

Even during the Beijing Games, in media coverage and online discussions outside China, Gu’s athletic talents were often overshadowed by the fascination with her nationality and identity. On the FoX News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox pundit Will Cain called Gu “ungrateful”  for “betraying the country that not just raised her, but turned her into a world-class skier.” On Change.org, almost 8,000 people signed a petition in a bid to get Gu’s Stanford admittance revoked. Gu’s “lack of integrity about her nationality” and her failure to “denounce the human rights violations” in China were cited as the main arguments for the petition in its description. 

Meanwhile in China, Gu was the subject of a full-throated PR campaign that painted her as the new face of China’s international image and a paragon of women’s empowerment. Gu’s superstar status was further solidified after she won three medals — two gold and one silver — at the Beijing Olympics, which led to an outpouring of adulation for Gu that was so intense that it literally overwhelmed Weibo, causing its servers to experience temporary overload. 

The newfound fame also translated into a financial windfall for Gu, as media reports revealed that she brought in 200 million yuan ($31 million) in 2021, mostly fueled by endorsement deals with two dozen brands including global luxury houses Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., and Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen. 

Although Gu has been outspoken about her pride in representing China, she has never directly addressed questions about whether she had renounced her U.S. citizenship in exchange for a Chinese passport. At press conferences, when asked about her citizenship, Gu usually talked about the power of sports to unite rather than divide. “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the U.S., I’m American,” she once told a reporter.  

Some people speculated that while China prohibits dual citizenship, it might have bent its own laws for Gu, who it desperately coveted for the sake of its medal count at the Beijing Games and its international reputation. And in another controversy, Gu once told an Instagram user that anyone in China could use a VPN, or virtual private network, to circumvent China’s Great Firewall and access the app, which is banned in the country. “It’s literally free on the App Store,” she wrote, without acknowledging that the technology was increasingly difficult to gain access to in China and that Chinese internet users could be punished for using such a tool. 

In light of her farewell message and her video of flying private, some Weibo users said the controversy finally brought home the fact that Gu was not an ordinary Chinese — or in other words — one of them.

Why Eileen Gu matters