Chinese athletes switch nationality for opportunities, welfare

By Zhao Yusha Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/21 19:48:39 Last Updated: 2016/8/22 6:35:27

Han Ying, Shan Xiaona and Petrissa Solja (from left to right) of Germany display their silver medals after their match against China during the Table Tennis Women's Team Finals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Tuesday. Han and Shan were both born in China. Photo: IC

A South Korean court denied a couple's attempt to adopt a teenage Chinese table tennis player recently, as it was decided that the purpose of the adoption was to allow the girl to play for the national team, the Korean Times reported.

It is not uncommon for Chinese athletes to migrate and play for other countries, both for the opportunities it allows them and the quality of life which follows their retirement.

Only a handful of foreign-born athletes have been naturalized into China, as the country doesn't recognize dual citizenship. But China is unlikely to change its law for sporting reasons, said Liu Guofu, an expert on immigration law from the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Invalid reason

The reason the Seoul Family Court rejected the couple's adoption bid on August 14 was that the purpose of the adoption was not deemed to be a valid reason.

"It is hard to accept the motive of the adoption - for the girl to become a national team player," Judge Kim Hyeong-ryul was quoted as saying by the Korea Times.

Kim said the girl was raised by her birth parents without any trouble, has recently been admitted to a prestigious Chinese university and has no special relationship with the Korean couple.

The report said the couple have appealed the decision. But after the court's pronouncement, two other South Korean couples seeking to adopt young Chinese table tennis players withdrew their applications.

Some developed countries primarily consider the benefits to the adopted child during the adoption process, a Beijing-based lawyer surnamed Yang told the Global Times.

"Letting children play for a national team is certainly not legitimate enough," said Yang.

But there are many adult athletes who have changed their nationality to play for other countries, said Yang, adding that these athletes are normally naturalized via a skilled migration system in which athletes are provided with beneficial terms, to fill gaps in countries' athletic programs, said Yang.

Ping-pong diaspora

According to incomplete statistics, more than 50 Chinese athletes were naturalized by other countries from 1989 to 2013, among which, over 20 were naturalized by South Korea or Japan, the Xinhua News Agency reported in 2014. 

"Many Chinese table tennis players have migrated to other countries as China has a glut of elite players, which makes getting onto the national team extremely difficult," Wang Qi, the manager of the China Sports Industry Group and a sports marketing expert, told the Global Times.

The New York Times reported on August 17 that of the 172 table tennis players participating in the Rio Olympic Games, at least 44 were born in the Chinese mainland, but only six are representing China, while the rest are playing for 21 other countries.

On Wednesday, China beat Germany 3-0 to win the gold medal in women's team table tennis. Two German players, Han Ying and Shan Xiaona, were born in China and received German nationality around 2010.

Athletes like Han and Shan cannot even make it onto a provincial team in China, but playing for Germany gave them the chance to make it to an Olympic final, said Wang.

Wang said that athletes can also receive more generous welfare after becoming citizens of advanced countries. "In China, a lot of Chinese athletes even have to worry about their employment after retiring from sports teams," said Wang.

No harm done

Wang dismissed concerns that the migration of Chinese athletes could hurt China's sporting achievements

"The nation is also trying to attract athletes to play for China. Many athletes from Brazil and Argentina want to come to China for the ample opportunities," said Wang.

But China doesn't allow dual citizenship which means that whoever decides to play for China must abandon their original citizenship. So few foreign athletes are willing to come and play for China, said Liu.

"The current policy fails to keep outstanding foreign athletes in China," said Liu.

China adopted its current Nationality Law in 1980, when there was much less integration and interaction between China and the outside world, said Liu.

However, Liu added that changing the migration law is also difficult for there are other issues to consider beside sports.

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