Zhu Yi and the Harsh Scrutiny of Naturalized Athletes in China

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For two days, social media users in China have been heaping scorn onto Beverly Zhu, a 19-year-old figure skater who was born and raised in the United States but competes for China under the name Zhu Yi.

The criticism began on Sunday, when the naturalized athlete fell during the women’s singles short program in the team event.

By that afternoon, the hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown had been viewed more than 200 million times on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. Commenters called her “shameless,” “rotten” and an “embarrassment.”

In an unusual move, Weibo stepped in by Sunday evening to ban the hashtag. It did not provide a reason, citing only “relevant guidelines and policies.”

“I’m upset and a little embarrassed,” a tearful Zhu said after the competition, according to Reuters. “I guess I felt a lot of pressure because I know everybody in China was pretty surprised with the selection for ladies’ singles, and I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do, but unfortunately I didn’t.”

Searches for Zhu’s name remained visible. Furor erupted again on Monday, after she stumbled twice during her free skate event. Zhu, who broke out in tears during the program, finished last.

“Don’t cry, I’m the one who wants to cry,” one commenter wrote online.

Chinese athletes face enormous pressure to win medals and bring glory to the country. The criticism of Zhu showed how naturalized athletes were sometimes subject to even harsher scrutiny.

Before the 2022 Games, Zhu had come under attack for her apparent inability to speak fluent Chinese. The uproar is in contrast to the international attention on Eileen Gu, the star skier who was born and raised in California but is also competing for China, and is widely favored to be a gold medal contender.

Some social media users suggested, without evidence, that Zhu had gained a spot on the Chinese Olympics team because of the prominence of her father, Song-Chun Zhu, a computer scientist who relocated to Peking University from the United States.

Her unsteady performances also elicited sympathy from some users. Even Hu Xijin, a recently retired editor of Global Times, a brashly nationalist Chinese newspaper, criticized the mockery of Zhu.

“To vent emotions on this young athlete, using social media to throw rocks down a well when she makes mistakes — that’s cyberbullying, and no matter what it’s going too far,” Hu wrote in a commentary that was widely shared online.

Chen Lu, a Chinese former figure skater who won bronze medals at two Olympics in the 1990s, said Zhu’s mistakes reflected the pressures of performing at a global event before a Chinese audience.

“For Zhu Yi, the biggest challenge is lack of experience in big competitions,” Chen said, according to Sohu, a Chinese news website. “She has never had this experience of competing on her home doorstep, and the pressure is enormous.”

Zhu is scheduled to compete again in the women’s singles skating program next week.