Did Nathan Chen Just Sink Harvard?

The Olympic gold medal skater who seems to defy the laws of nature may have knocked the last props out from Harvard’s pathetic defense of its discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And it’s not (just) because Nathan Chen is a Yale man. And, in any event, Yale is no better than Harvard and other Ivy League schools in its use of admissions quotas against Asian-Americans.

Chen, a Chinese-American born in Salt Lake City, has expressed pride in skating in the city of Beijing, where his mother was born. That’s appropriate honoring of one’s parents. The victorious Chen joined the celebrated Korean-American Chloe Kim, a 21-year-old native Californian and a former Princeton student, who also won a gold medal in Beijing and now holds a record two Olympic gold medals in snowboarding. (She won her first gold at the 2018 winter games in PyeongChang, South Korea.)

But other Asian Americans have gone too far in celebrating their ancestry. Two Chinese-American athletes, both American born—one a skier, Eileen Gu, the other an ice skater, Zhu Yi—are competing for the People’s Republic of China this year. The skier won a gold and is wildly popular in China, while the skater crashed into a wall and was mocked on Chinese social media and told to go home to America. Chen, meanwhile, has won minimal warmth from the Chinese. The Chinese go with winners who identify as Chinese. They do not embrace the ABCs (American-born Chinese) as their own and often turn on foreigners who join their teams.

Unlike the NBA’s LeBron James, and other commercial toadies of China, the two young Americans who compete for China seem to have escaped much abuse in America. In her defense, skier Gu maintains she competed for China in order to influence it in a positive way. The 18 year-old Californian, raised by her immigrant engineer mother, is also a successful model. She has explained, “When I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese . . . I do corks in an icy, 22-foot, U-shaped snow structure. That’s not political. It’s pushing the human limit, and it’s connecting people.” 

Gu’s Chinese identity was evidently pushed hard on her by her mother. She studied summers in Beijing. Fluent in Mandarin, she has apparently captivated the local media. Eileen will study at Stanford. She is estimated by the Beijing News to have earned “$15 million in 2021, is currently the third-highest-paid female athlete in the world, trailing only tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.” 

She has been more than defensive about the way the Xi regime has used her as propaganda, lashing out at critics.

By contrast, her fellow Californian Olympian, 19 year-old Zhu Yi, has suffered abuse from Chinese fans, who complain about her poor Chinese language skills, in addition to her poor performance. She was added to the Chinese team over native Chinese.

Both of these young women may be said to be cosmopolitans who lack a true country of their own. When they decided to compete they made their political choice. Even when they follow their parents’ bidding, these young athletes objectively act in opposition to the United States of America. It’s not just about a game. What they did was much worse than former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest, even if they were not acting completely on their own. Moreover, they, perhaps again unwittingly, open up an old divide between immigrants and natives.

The choices of these young Asian-Americans adds a wrinkle to the controversial policy of discrimination against Asian-American applicants to the elite schools favored by the Olympians such as Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. Bureaucrats and apologists for the clearly discriminatory policy—see the graph below comparing admissions rates for Asian-Americans at Harvard, MIT, and Caltech—are at a loss to explain the apparent ceiling on admissions to Asian-Americans. The ceiling does not apply to foreign students. 

Althea Nagai, from her study, “Too Many Asian Americans”

Perhaps in its heart of hearts Harvard draws on its despicable former instincts about not wanting too many Jewish students and applies the same twisted logic. We don’t need too many of these Asians, goes the thinking, they just don’t belong here. And with these choices of Chinese-American star athletes, we see this bigotry affirmed, not to mention in scientists, government workers, and others of use to the Beijing regime. They will never be fully American, the keepers of the Harvard flame might conclude. So why give them half the admissions slots? 

The more truly American argument would be that Chen, Kim, and other Olympians of Asian ancestry who didn’t go over to a foreign country are a great counterexample and even more typical of Asian Americans. It is welcome news that the Supreme Court has accepted the lawsuit against Harvard College for discriminating against Asian Americans in undergraduate admissions. The only question is what degree of punishment will Harvard and other elite schools be forced to bear. 

But the damage has been done.  A defender of elite exclusionism might  assert its alleged victims are disproportionately ungrateful to their country, pointing to  Gu and Zhu. After all, charges of espionage have proliferated against Chinese immigrant scholars. 

But this is an argument Harvard would never make for fear of confirming the charge of racism. Harvard administrators would never openly say they want to favor “more American” students. However preposterously, the school likes to think of itself as the conscience of the country. (Alumnus Alger Hiss notwithstanding). The charge comes too close to the  exclusion of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast during World War II due to hysteria and racism, the argument goes. (Whether that argument had any merit at all we needn’t discuss here).    

This is all to raise a more general question: How deeply does American identity currently go? Are Americans with family ties to foreign countries just using their American citizenship? How likely are they to join another team after graduation? It would be wrong to focus only on Asian-Americans and alleged “dual loyalty.” What keeps any American from dwelling on where their parents came from? The point of having an immigration policy, as the American founders repeatedly made it clear, is to ensure we have people who are capable of maintaining a republican government,

Older American-born children of Asian immigrants recall even innocent questioning of their identity with pain that they weren’t immediately accepted as American. Today, children of recent immigrants seem much less attached to America because they are much more in touch with their parents’ native land. To them, America has ceased to be exceptional. Of course, as in the case of China, this makes such cosmopolitans all the more vulnerable to blandishments from a country hostile to American economic and strategic interests, not to mention the COVID episode.

The loyalty issue was rightly raised in two successful national officeholders, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. Are they really Americans? One asks, because both of them spent considerable portions of their youths in foreign countries. Harris’ distance from America is all the greater, for she had two immigrant parents. 

The amount of speculation on Obama, who was raised mostly by a white leftist mother, worked against him among blacks as well as whites. He had to persuade everyone that he was less of an exotic stranger than he sometimes seemed to be. Harris was given a pass, which she should not have received. After all, the influence of her aristocratic Indian scientist mother and her spending the bulk of her teen years in Montreal, Canada should have weighed against her. The question for her and for others in her situation is whether she is instinctively American. Can she even know what that means?

The wider question goes beyond one farce of a politician: whether there are still instinctively American Americans, whether a patriotic upbringing is possible in today’s left media-obsessed atmosphere. Is it possible today to breathe free air? 

An 18th century French writer claimed that dogs ceased to bark in the North American atmosphere. In 21st century America, one wonders whether Americans can remain Americans in today’s environment. Do they still retain their old bite? Do many in the shrinking viewership of this year’s Olympics even understand that the Chinese-American victories are simply American victories when they are performed for the American team?

To escape the historical prison of our times may not require performing a triple axel, but even that physical transformation of the laws of nature is a lot easier than a political one, and for a republic the achievement would be an even more spectacular refinement of the laws of nature. For those who have eyes, the 2022 Olympics teaches us the difficulty and the necessity of such political transcendence for an entire people.


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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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