Yao Named Chinese “Model Worker”

The 7′ 6″ basketball player, who scored 33 points in his most recent playoff game, joins the ranks of legendary farmers, construction workers, and party members:

Working-Class Hero? NBA Star Nets China’s Proletarian Award (LAT)

Take a bow, Yao Ming.

The ruling Communist Party on Wednesday named the Houston Rockets’ center a model worker for this year’s May Day celebration. The list of nominees, which once honored hard-working factory employees and paraded them before the masses as inspiration, now celebrates the NBA star, the chief executive of a software company and the chairman of an investment firm.

Even Yao, who has a four-year contract with the Rockets worth $17.8 million, was surprised.

“Before, I thought model workers only recognized ordinary people who worked tirelessly and without asking for anything in return,” the 24-year-old Yao said through his agent. “Now the award also includes someone like me, a special kind of migrant worker. That’s a sign of progress.”

Some Chinese say the party should extol the success of socialist heroes, as it did before.

“It’s absurd,” Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing, said of Yao’s award. “Model workers should be ordinary people you can look up to and imitate. Yao Ming is an NBA star. That’s honor enough. Besides, what he does, it’s impossible for ordinary people to imitate.”

But for Communists hoping to generate interest in a contest that many call a relic of a bygone era, no one is a better pitchman than Yao.

In nominating him for the proletariat hall of fame, the Shanghai municipal government argued that its native son was the slam-dunk symbol of a new China.

To many of his fans, the “Little Giant,” as Yao is affectionately known here, is a patriotic poster child. As a condition for joining the NBA, he was required to give half his NBA salary to Chinese sports authorities. It is unclear how much they will take from the $70 million in endorsement fees he is expected to receive over the next 10 years from such corporations as McDonald’s, Apple Computer, Visa International, watchmaker Tag Heuer and Garmin, a maker of global-positioning products.

During the off-season, Yao splits his time between Houston and Shanghai. Despite being an international megastar, Yao never relinquished his duty as China’s most valuable player. Whenever his country team is in need, he flies right back and does as he is told.

Yao’s NBA salary alone makes him one of China’s most profitable exports to the United States. But officials deny that his cash-cow status was a factor in his selection as a model worker.

“Yao Ming is nominated because he meets all the qualifications of a model worker,” said Yin Weimin, deputy minister in the Chinese Ministry of Personnel, which selects the model workers. “He is a great athlete. He has contributed greatly to the development of the basketball industry in China and gained much glory for the country. His personal wealth is another issue.”

The article describes the celebration of capitalists, migrants, and entrepreneurs as the government’s attempt to promote “a more pluralistic society” and gain popularity. But I think that this move goes beyond domestic appeals. It’s also a way to allay international fears of threatening growth. China wants to put a benign face on its rapid expansion.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Ken says:

    Marc Cuban wishes he had someone to stop him (and McGrady).