Two Sides of The Same Coin — The Legal Controversy of China’s Naturalisation Practice in Sport

Viewpoint by Dr Yiyong Liang

The writer is a Sport business consultant and an independent researcher.

HEBEI (IDN) — Athletes’ naturalisation has been common practice in international sports, many countries have turned to foreign nations for success. It is not until recent years the Chinese government adopted such an approach in order to shine on the international sports stage.

Obtaining a foreign nationality is often through one’s ethnic heritage or fulfilling residence requirements and there is no shortage of naturalised athletes who competed for their adopted countries. Qatar, Japan and the Philippines all employed the same manner to improve their national squads in different events.

As the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is in full swing, China naturalised freestyle skier Eileen Gu (Chinese name Gu Ailing) is making the headlines not only by winning the Big Air competition and becoming the youngest Olympic champion for China but also the debate around her nationality and its legitimacy in all kind of media platforms across the globe, especially China’s practical stands on its Nationality Law.

The first notable case of China’s naturalised athlete is Alex HuaTian (Chinese name HuaTian), he was born in London in 1989 with a Chinese father and a British mother. Like Miss Gu Eileen in many perspectives, Mr Hua moved to Beijing and then Hong Kong with his family, at age of four, he was introduced to riding which is a very popular sport in the former British colony.

The Hua’s family returned to the UK when he was eleven, he attended a local school in Wiltshire followed by Eton College. According to a BBC report, HuaTian represented China as the only rider in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Even though the equestrian industry has grown rapidly in the country it remains a small event in terms of popularity, despite Mr Hua made a continued appearance with China in the following two Olympics, his nationality switch remains a low-profile affair.

Athletes’ naturalisation debate took off after a series of football players selected or represented China in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers with both aforementioned naturalisation routes were fully explored. Chinese national team, boosted by naturalised players suffered badly during the second stage of the qualifiers which was highlighted by 3:1 losing to Vietnam respectively on the day of Chinese New Year, coupled with a 2:0 defeat to Japan a week earlier, the results led to a national outcry. All five naturalised players from Brazil returned to Brazil after the season and only two returned to the national team just before the two matches.

By contrast, only a few days later, Eileen Gu’s victory in the Olympic Games provides a different scenario for the general public to cheer up from the football disasters. It appears a big success for both Eileen and the Chinese government that continue the naturalisation project. Indeed, Eileen is not alone, 30 naturalised athletes in total formed the imperative part of China’s 2022 Winter Olympic delegation, and 28 are ice hockey players, predominately North Americans who could not even speak Chinese.

Unlike her ice hockey peers, Eileen was born in 2003 in San Francisco with a Chinese mother and an American father, fluent in both Chinese and English.

From the IOC perspective, Olympic athletes must be the citizen of the nation under the flag they compete. Eileen has chosen to represent China since 2019 and the Chinese government provided her citizenship and a passport. She is perfectly legit for the Games.

In fact, the last paragraph of the article Five Things You Did Not Know About Gu Ailing Eileen from the IOC’s German website clearly states that she has dual citizenship. For the two countries that Eileen is closely attached to are the US and China, and American law does not mention dual nationality or require its citizen to choose one or another,

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that people can “have and exercise rights of nationality in two countries.”; by the same token, the Chinese Nationality Law does not allow dual citizenship.

The Article 8 states: “Any person who applies for naturalization as a Chinese national shall acquire Chinese nationality upon approval of his application; a person whose application for naturalization as a Chinese national has been approved shall not retain foreign nationality.”

According to the law, it would be difficult to convince foreign-born athletes with Chinese ancestry to switch their allegiance, not to mention the ones without Chinese heritage.

After she won the Big Air competition, Eileen was asked about her nationality status multiple times, including a direct Yes or No question from Guardian “Are you still a US citizen?” She diplomatically deflected it.

Ms Gu describes her feeling as: “I feel just as American as I am Chinese,” “When I am in America, I am an American and When I am in China I am a Chinese”. By contrast, such a comment made a reverse version of a statement made by Alex Hu Tian—China’s first naturalised athlete, he expressed his feeling: “I feel very Chinese here in the British countryside,” “At the same time when I’m in China, I feel very British.”

If Ms. Gu and other ‘mercenaries’ have not renounced their nationality of origin, we have seen no one publicly done so, and the Chinese government would have broken its own law by approving their Chinese citizenships and issuing Chinese passports.

Is this practice double standards? Or simply discrimination against thousands of other Chinese people with other nationalities at the same time who want to possess dual citizenship? China’s Nationality Law is one thing, and its political will is another.

At least for athletes to represent Team China competing in the Olympic Games nationality conflicts are not an issue for the Chinese government. How about law and order? Well, it is another question that lies behind the government political will for the time being. Against the Chinese Nationality Law, the legality and mystery surrounding China’s naturalised athletes remain unsolved.

It is two sides of the one coin for the Chinese government. It wants to keep enforcing the current Nationality Law at the same time it also wants to attract global talents for its projects of ‘China Dream’.

On the one hand, to tighten control on its citizens dual nationality is not recognised for ordinary people—once discovered, their Chinese accounts will be removed, but on the other hand, an athlete with dual citizenship is celebrated. It puts the Chinese government in an awaked position when facing the international community. Is really any publicity a good publicity? Probably not.

China’s nationality law—enacted in 1980—stipulates that anyone acquiring foreign citizenship would automatically lose their Chinese nationality. Some argue that the law is not keeping with the times and authorities should prioritise recognising the Chinese origins of overseas residents with foreign citizenship—not only to attract more talent from abroad but also to ease China’s demographic crisis.

The world has undergone tremendous changes, the current law does pose obstacles for personnel exchanges, in reality, more and more Chinese people face the difficulty of choosing their nationality. It is time to amend the law and let people choose and let people be free. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 February 2022]

Photo: China naturalised freestyle skier Eileen Gu has made the headlines by winning the Gold Medal in Big Air competition in Bejing 2022 and becoming the youngest Olympic champion for China. Source: El Pais

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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