Kaleidoscope: Linsanity and Sport in China

American-Chinese basketballer, Jeremy Lin has become an overnight sensation in China, writes Geoff Tink from Shanghai.

It’s midway through the 2011-2012 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the New York Knicks have lost 11 of their last 13 games, star players are missing with injury, and a play-offs appearance seems a distant hope – when in desperation they call upon their fourth-choice point guard, an unheralded Chinese American off-season recruit. His name: Jeremy Lin. The result: A string of record-breaking performances, where Jeremy Lin leads the Knicks on an astonishing seven-game winning streak and the birth of a new sensation – “Linsanity”.
But the “hoop-la” surrounding the performances of the 23-year-old “Lin Shuhao” (林书豪), as he’s known in China, represented more than just excitement over the feel-good story of an young man making the most of his chance at fame and fortune. In China, Linsanity also drew attention to other issues, such as his earning power, his bi-cultural roots (born and raised in the USA), and his place within the complex relationship between China and Taiwan (both parents are second-generation Taiwanese). However, the rise of Linsanity also spoke volumes about the rise of Asian sport and an increasing demand for respect on the global stage.
The truth is, whether it is racial stereotyping or not, despite some exceptions, sporting success is not usually associated with Asia or people of Asian ethnic background. In a 2011 interview prior to his rise to fame, Lin stated, “I feel like Asians in general don’t get the respect that we may deserve whether it comes to sports, basketball, or whatever it might be.” It’s a search for sporting respect not just limited to Asian-Americans. Indeed, as illustrated by the success of the 2008 Summer Olympics and last year’s French Open victory for Li Na, the world’s largest Asian country is in the midst of its own search for sporting respect – and two team sports are at the centre of it all.
It would be logical that the world’s most populous nation should focus on the world’s most popular sport. In July 2011, the man next in line to assume the role of General Secretary and President in China, Xi Jinping, declared that he had “three wishes” for Chinese football: to qualify, host, and then win the World Cup. Regardless of how achievable these goals may be – China is currently ranked 66th in the world – the government has characteristically pushed ahead. China is now a regular stop for the pre-season tours of major European sides and business tycoons have been urged to inject hundreds of millions of renminbi into the budgets of Chinese football clubs.
In January, bank-rolled by colourful industrialist and video-game mogul Zhu Jun, the perennial bridesmaids of the Chinese Super League, Shanghai Shenhua, signed French international and former Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid star, Nicolas Anelka. Rumoured to be earning over US$ 307,000 per week, Anelka was just the first superstar in the sights of Shenhua, with Chelsea star Didier Drogba also coming close to putting pen to paper.
While Drogba did not end up finalising a transfer deal, there have been many other stars that have packed their bags for cities around the country. On the road to the title of league champions last year, Guangzhou was willing to offer salaries higher than even Manchester City, spending US$ 17 million signing Argentinian midfielder Darío Conca and Brazilian forwards Cléo and Muiqui. With Chinese Football Association (CFA) rules now permitting an additional foreign import if the player is a member of the Asian Football Confederation, Australian football clubs have noted that their players have been receiving an increasing number of lucrative offers from Chinese clubs.
“This is the first time that China has invited such a big star. It is very good publicity. Whenever people mention the name Anelka, they will think of Shenhua and Shanghai,” said one club official. Similar to Japan’s J-League in the early 1990’s, the import of foreign stars aims to improve the standard of the league, providing flow-on effects for domestic player development, while also improving performances at the ticket booth and television rights negotiations table.

Currently, state-owned broadcaster CCTV refuses to pay for domestic CFA matches because the quality is judged such a perennially poor standard. The investment in Nicolas Anelka may already be changing this situation, with reports that a French TV company has offered US$ 350,000 for live feeds of his games.

This is music to the ears of football fans in China. “Maybe Anelka will attract more foreign stars to China and the league will be more entertaining to watch,” mused one commenter on Weibo. There are sure to be hundreds of thousands of other supporters with the same hopes. Anyone that has been to football games in China can vouch for the atmosphere; crowded with tens of thousands of vociferous fans, the raucousness of die-hard supporter groups chanting all sorts of expletives at opposing fans and underperforming players, all the while overlooked by an unnerving number of Army riot police. The supporter base remains strong – but there is a realism about the impact that a few star players can make. Some problems appear almost insurmountable.
In 2009, an official investigation reinforced what was already suspected – corruption remains rampant in Chinese football. Revelations included the fact that matches could be bought for US$ 300,000 and a place on the national team for as little as US$ 15,000. In February, 39 players and officials were jailed for corruption. In April, it was announced that Xie Yalong and Nan Yong – both former Deputy Chief of the CFA – would also stand trial for corruption.
There is only so much that the efforts and professionalism of imported players can achieve. Rampant corruption and excessive state control, spiraling land prices and poor urban planning, dismal performances from the national team, and a one-child policy where children are effectively wrapped in cotton wool, are all combining to stifle the game of football at the grassroots in China. The CFA has no amateur league and the China Daily recently reported that a measly 7,000 players are officially registered with the CFA, compared to 650,000 in the early 1990s.
Which brings us full-circle again, back to basketball and the recent phenomenon of “Linsanity”. As football in China fights for credibility both internationally and domestically, it is losing ground to basketball. In an increasingly urbanised society, where school children have an average of one square metre of playground space, basketball is thriving and now boasts greater participation numbers than football. The NBA boasts offices and official merchandise stores around China, with extensive scouting programmes and major broadcast agreements.
So while Nike and Adidas were quick to release Lin-related apparel at thousands of stores around the country and Volvo recently made Lin the focus of its global advertising campaign, the buzz around Anelka has been comparatively low. While Nicolas Anelka has no verified weibo page, Jeremy Lin now boasts well over 2.7 million followers.
Jeremy Lin may be playing in a foreign league, half a world away – but he is Chinese. He is an athlete with which kids can empathise, playing a game in which they can readily participate, in a league that is (relatively) free from scandal. On an even deeper level, he brings a contemporary attitude to broader socio-cultural issues facing Chinese youth today, from racism to cross-straits relations.
It’s a hard act to for football follow. And with a Harvard education under his belt, there’s even a little Linsanity in there for the parents. 

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