Why a Jeremy Lin couldn’t emerge in China

Jeremy Shu-How Lin, the Taiwanese-American basketball star now playing for the New York Knicks, has a great following in China.  But if he had grown up in China, he wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to become a top basketball player.

Time’s Hannah Beech tells why.

In the U.S., Lin was underrated by pro and college scouts because he is Asian-American.  Chinese fans are indignant about a stereotyping in the States that assumes Americans of Chinese descent can be good engineers or software designers, but not brash NBA stars. 

The criticism is absolutely fair.  But in China, Lin may not have been picked for stardom either.  Firstly, at a mere 6 feet 3 inches—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sports system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.  That’s why the Chinese basketball league has had a history of producing strong centers—big men like 7 foot 6 inch Yao [Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets,] or 6 foot 11 inch Mengke Bateer, the ethnic Mongolian who played briefly in the NBA—but does poorly when it comes to developing point guards like Lin.

The Economist’s Gady Epstein explains that lack of height wouldn’t have been Lin’s only problem.

What of Mr Lin’s faith?  If by chance Mr Lin were to have gained entry into the sport system, he would not have emerged a Christian, at least not openly so.  China has tens of millions of Christians, and officially tolerates Christianity; but the Communist Party bars religion from its membership and institutions, and religion has no place in its sport model.  One does not see Chinese athletes thanking God for their gifts; their coach and Communist Party leaders, yes, but Jesus Christ the Saviour? No.

Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place.  This is because to put one’s child and in China, usually an only child at that, in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday.  If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing.

One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal.  Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.

In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.

I admire all forms of human excellence.  I have posted a number of videos on the amazing feats of Chinese acrobats.  But maybe this excellence is achieved at too high a price.  If you take some child away from their parents, and intensively train them in just one thing, whether it be basketball, gymnastics, ballet or chess, and then discard them if they fall short of perfection, isn’t that the equivalent of the Chinese electronics sweatshops we complain about so much?  What you have sounds like a mixture of Chinese sweatshop manufacturing companies such as Foxconn, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are bred and nurtured for their specialist roles in society.

Click on Why Jeremy Lin Can’t Be Made in China for Hannah Beech’s full article in Time.

Click on China’s new sports problem: Stop the Linsanity? for Gady Epstein’s full Banyan column in The Economist.

Click on Jeremy Lin wiki for Wikipedia’s review of his career.

Hat tip to Daniel W. Drezner.

This video of acrobatic Chinese ballet dancers, which I had been saving to post at some future date, is an example of Chinese achievement.   The ability of the ballerina to maintain her pose motionless is amazing, as is the guy who supports her weight with her toe-tip digging into his shoulder.  But at what price was this achieved?  Do these acrobatic dancers have anything in their lives besides excellence in this one specialty?  Are they happy with their lives?  Are they afraid of being injured and being unable to perform?

Excellence requires single-mindedness.  This is true in all cultures, not just in China.  All great athletes and dancers have undergone years of training, with special diets and exercise.  For dancers this often begins in early childhood, before the dancer has reached the age of informed consent.  Few of them can spare the time to become well-rounded individuals. Excellence has a human price and, if you want the result, you have to pay the price.  But the price can be too high, especially when it is not an individual choice as to whether to pay it.

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