Who gets to play for a country's national team at the Winter Olympics is an especially complicated question in China, where issues of identity, ethnicity, and citizenship are at stake.



Who gets to play for China at the Winter Olympics is a complicated question with issues of identity, ethnicity and citizenship all colliding. NPR's Emily Feng reports on China's new generation of foreign-born athletes.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This Winter Olympics, you might notice just under three dozen of China's athletes were not born in China. Most of these foreign-born athletes are on China's men's ice hockey team. But most famously, they also include freestyle ski prodigy Eileen Gou.

EILEEN GU: I definitely feel as though I am just as American as I am Chinese. I'm American when I'm in the US, and I'm Chinese when I'm in China.

FENG: San Francisco-born Gu made headlines when she announced in 2019 that she was skiing for China this Olympics. To be clear, switching teams is extremely common. Here's Tom Fabian, a researcher at the University of Ottawa.

TOM FABIAN: There's definitely a brawn drain going on, basically extracting athletic capital, you know, athletic talent from economically developing nations, and they'll bring them on board to their teams where they have the resources and then just give them citizenship.

FENG: China is a latecomer to the strategy, though, because it expressly forbids its citizens from holding multiple citizenships, so many people wondered, had Gu taken a Chinese passport and given up her American one? And also, why does China have such strict nationality laws? Turns out you've got to go back to the Qing Dynasty, specifically to 1909.

TOM MULLANEY: Just two years before the revolution that would finally overthrow it.

FENG: That's Tom Mullaney, who teaches history at Stanford University. He explains the Qing were desperate to co-opt ethnically Chinese people living abroad and stop them from fomenting revolution. So the Qing adopted what they called the bloodline principle, the idea that citizenship is based on Chinese heritage and not where you are born. Shao Dan, who teaches history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says Qing officials closely studied Japanese nationality law at the time.

SHAO DAN: They emphasized what they assume as a kind of societal impact or consequence of the bloodline principle is unconditional, permanent loyalty.

FENG: Meaning controlling citizenship was also a way of ensuring allegiance to only China. But back to the more pressing question facing athletes today of which Olympic teams they can represent. It comes down to whether athletes profess a Chinese nationality, but not necessarily citizenship, two separate concepts that are often conflated in Chinese law, says Mike Gow at Edge Hill University in England.

MIKE GOW: Citizenship is a much more formal recognition that conveys certain rights on you but also certain responsibilities that you have, whereas nationality does not have that. Nationality is just - it's more tied up with your identity of who you are.

FENG: Different sports federations have different rules on this, but the International Olympic Committee only asks for athletes to prove nationality - their personal connection to a country. So foreign athletes born to Chinese parents abroad could declare Chinese nationality in order to play for China and keep their foreign passport. Or, according to Chinese officials, they could get Chinese permanent residency, sort of like a green card, started in 2020 to attract foreign talent, though that acceptance seems only to extend to those who are successful. Zhu Yi, a U.S.-born figure skater on China's team, fell during competition. That and her rusty Mandarin caused Chinese internet users to lambast her for taking a, quote, "real" Chinese person's spot. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.