By Adam Minter
On Feb. 14, American boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. posted a thought on Twitter about Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American basketball sensation who has become the most compelling story for the National Basketball Association this season. He wrote: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise."
Quickly, Mayweather became the subject of withering accusations of racism from sports fans and commentators -– in the U.S.
In China, however, there was no such rebuke. That's partly because few, if any, Chinese sports fans pay attention to American boxers like Floyd Mayweather. But the other reason is far more interesting. Chinese editorialists and microbloggers have rhapsodized about Lin’s extraordinary skills and cool in millions of microblog posts and they’re often just as fixated on Lin’s race. Many have claimed Lin for China, calling him the "Pride of Zhejiang," in honor of his mother’s place of origin. Commentators have also discussed whether his success is in some way shared by ethnic Chinese everywhere, and why Chinese nationals can’t succeed like he does. It’s a frank conversation, conducted in terms that could make politically-correct Americans squirm.
Consider, for example, this brief dialogue that took place on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, on Feb. 11, a few hours after Lin’s stunning game against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Wang Shuai, the sports editor for Northeast News, a major Communist Party-owned news portal in Liaoning Province, rhetorically asked: “If he’s not named Jeremy Lin, but rather named Jeremy Park or Jeremy Yamamoto, but with the same yellow skin, will you praise him so highly?”
Wu Wanyun, a student in Tianjin, responded: “What logic. Could it be that Kobe [Bryant], [Tracy] McGrady and [LeBron] James are all Chinese? At least Lin has yellow skin.”
Of course, it’s not unusual for a sports fan to identify with an athlete on the basis of race. Larry Bird was widely known as the “Great White Hope ” even before he entered an NBA dominated by African-Americans. It’s also no accident that a cable network associated with the New York Knicks has started holding viewing parties in New York’s Chinatown .
Chinese sports fans differ from their American counterparts because they are not just inclined to identify with their race, but to compare it with other races. This isn’t quite as sinister as it may sound on first pass. Contemporary Chinese culture is driven by competition and rankings (one need only look at China’s brutal college entrance examinations). As citizens of a rising power, it’s only natural that the Chinese have a tendency to measure national progress against those perceived as the leaders.
For the Chinese basketball fan, that can be a depressing exercise. The modest handful of Chinese nationals who have succeeded in the NBA are freakishly tall (Yao Ming is 7 feet, 6 inches tall; New Jersey Net Yi Jianlian is 7 feet tall), and certainly well beyond the stature of the average human being, much less average Chinese. This awkward fact has led many Chinese basketball fans to wonder if a more standard Asian body type could succeed at the highest level of the sport. Jeremy Lin, at a relatively modest height of 6 feet 3 inches, suggests to some that they can.
Yan Xiaohua, editor of Trendsports, an online sports magazine, wrote on Sina Weibo:
[He] has become the most inspiring case for yellow-skinned players. Unlike Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian who are special protégés of the Gods, he's 1.91 meters tall and 90 kg weight, infinitely closer to ordinary people, closer to ‘us’ who are born short, with yellow skin and black hair.
For those who care to think deeply about this resemblance, Yan’s observation raises an awkward question that’s been ricocheting, in various forms, within Chinese microblogs since Lin first broke out on Feb. 4: Why is the first ethnic Chinese point guard to star in the NBA not a Chinese national?
It’s a sensitive question with political implications for China’s state-run sports establishment, which is responsible for training China’s elite athletes. On Feb. 12, Mao Maozi, a cameraman with the state-run Shanghai Education Television network, tweeted an answer to that question on Sina Weibo:
If Jeremy Lin lived on the mainland, he would either be a semi-literate CBA [Chinese Basketball Association, China’s state-run professional league] player or an ordinary undergraduate who likes basketball in his spare time. We admire him not because he is an ethnic Chinese, but because he has proved for a fact that the main reason that Chinese don't play basketball well is because of the system, and not their physique!
Chinese microblogs are filled with observations along those lines. For example, Baiyun Liang, a microblogger in western Shanxi Province, also felt liberated from the need to wonder whether Chinese are capable of playing basketball. He wrote:
The Jeremy Lin phenomenon proves two things, at least: one, the Chinese people can play basketball, though it depends on the environment in which he grew up; and two, as long as he has access to a suitable platform to achieve genius, he can become a genius.
But the fact that Lin has achieved what many characterize as an unlikely success for the Chinese people doesn’t always yield respect for his nationality.
On Feb. 13, one anonymous microblogger in Nanjing drew a comparison between Lin and the popular new Chinese-American U.S. ambassador, Gary Locke: “Jeremy Lin and Gary Locke are Americans, bananas, their skin is yellow, but their insides are white.”
In a similar vein, the Shanghai Evening Post, an influential paper owned and operated by Shanghai’s Communist Party, firmly disputed the commonly-voiced suggestion that Lin should be compared to China’s greatest basketball export, Yao Ming. In “He’s Not Yao,” a mildly petulant editorial published on Feb. 12, the paper noted:
Yao Ming's success is not only due to his basketball accomplishments, but also due to his successful integration into the American sports world … [i]n this aspect, Lin will never replace Yao. Even if he became a future superstar, he's only a yellow-skinned Kobe [Bryant] or [Steve] Nash.
The Yao comparisons have a particular resonance for state media, in no small part because Yao -– and not Lin -– came out of China’s massive state-run sports system.
As Chinese state media goes, none is more influential than People’s Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, and its take on "Linsanity" is both interesting and important.
The People’s Daily isn’t going to debate whether or not Chinese are capable of playing point guard; nor can it blame China’s state-sponsored athletic training establishment for the failure of Chinese nationals to ascend to the NBA. Instead, in “Will Jeremy Lin Replace Yao Ming,” published Feb. 12, it cleverly shifted the blame for the lack of Chinese NBA players onto the NBA and its racial biases. Leading U.S. sports media, like ESPN, have also explored racism in the NBA, but the People’s Daily took it further:
[Lin’s] success not only proves that "the yellow race can be outstanding defenders on the basketball court," but also poses questions to American basketball: Why is the appearance of America's first "Jeremy Lin" so overdue? Why is it that black figures dominate the NBA?
Few Chinese microbloggers or newspaper columnists are going to bother answering that question. As Linsanity has spread in China, others are asking another question: Why do we care?
“Jeremy Lin is just an American,” complained Lu Yang Bin, a Sina Weibo microblogger in Guangdong Province . “He doesn’t even mention China, yet China's editors have blown him up into a god, this native-born American ...”
Until there is a Jeremy Lin born and made in China, Jeremy Lin the Chinese-American will almost certainly remain a favorite of native-born Chinese basketball fans.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
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