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The Other Chinese Giant

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao visited Washington — but did another Chinese man steal the spotlight?

May 3, 2002

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao visited Washington — but did another Chinese man steal the spotlight?

The path to power in China is a mysterious process. Aged leaders can hang on for what seems to be eternity. Those who await often encounter pitfalls and painful ousters.

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao’s apparent shoo-in marks him as a special Chinese leader. But as he arrived in Washington D.C. for his “coming-out” party, Mr. Hu is a mystery of sorts.

That Mr. Hu’s trip has kept a low profile is, in part, by design. Yet, it is also a testament to how little even the biggest changes in Chinese leadership matter to the average U.S. citizen.

Most Americans, women or men, don’t have a clue just who that “Hu” from China is — or how much a part of their lives his decisions might become.

Yet, there is ample evidence that some giant steps taken in China do matter a lot to Americans — especially sports fans. To wit: The widespread attention given to a 45-minute training session in a Chicago gymnasium on May 1, 2002, the day before Mr. Hu arrived in Washington.

This session, too, is a “coming out” party, of sorts, for the gargantuan Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming — whose photos are now splashed across the sports pages of U.S. newspapers.

Mr. Yao stands at seven feet, five inches. Having played for China’s national team, he is no stranger to world basketball. Yet, the Chinese superstar’s training session in Chicago made headlines because he was assessed by NBA (National Basketball Association) scouts.

In some ways, Mr. Yao’s session will be no big deal for the NBA, which has recently seen an explosion of overseas talent.

Philadelphia 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo hails from Zaire. Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki grew up playing in Germany. Serbia has sent well-known big man Vlade Divac and ace shooter Predrag Stojakovic. Gheorghe Muresan — who is two inches taller than Mr. Yao — came from Romania. The NBA is truly becoming a global league — with a global audience.

If Mr. Yao plays for the NBA, it could trigger yet another irony. Due to the complicated question of who “owns” the Chinese superstar’s contract, upwards of 80% of his multimillion NBA salary would go to China’s government and the teams he now plays for in China’s basketball league.

Mr. Yao’s workout may, in fact, be a pivotal moment in U.S.-Sino relations. Sports are an immensely important part of American culture. Among the goals of Mr. Hu’s trip is to “sell” a new Chinese leader to Washington powerbrokers. On the other hand, a sports superstar such as Mr. Yao will not have to be “sold” at all. His prowess will “sell” itself.