Yao Ming at Brookings – Basketball Links so Many People in the U.S. and China

Today, the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings and the China Institute for International Studies (CIIS) marked the 35th anniversary of U.S.-China relations with a public event bringing together foreign policy scholars, government officials and public figures to discuss the state of U.S.-China relations with attention to diplomatic and cultural ties and public diplomacy and soft power. In the first session, retired basketball star Yao Ming joined NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern to discuss the role that basketball has played in U.S.-China relations.

Yao talked about his days in China’s professional league with the Shanghai Sharks prior to being drafted in the first round by the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Yao said that despite the U.S. and China being different cultures and different peoples, “we’re all linked by the very simple interest .. the basketball game. We love this game so much.” 

“This game brings just everyone together,” Yao said.

Commissioner Emeritus Stern recalled when Yao was drafted by the Rockets. “There was nothing like Yao Ming,” he said.

Although this year, at the beginning of the season, we had 80 international players on our rosters, there was nothing like Yao Ming. I can still remember … his being in the studio—the CNN Studio in Beijing—when I announced that he was the first pick in the 2002 draft. And then began a journey. The pressure on him, some sense that he was the ambassador for this entire country. And all of a sudden, Americans were going to learn more about China than they knew in other ways through Yao Ming. And he took to that responsibility. And in an interesting way through television our Chinese fans were going to learn more about America through Yao Ming. And this is for a young 22-year-old who was being burdened with this.

I think he did wonderfully. Because he became an all-star player and at the same time he became an ambassador, in effect for two countries. And that to me was his extraordinary beginning contribution.

When moderator William Antholis asked Yao about his thoughts on how the United States and China have moved along in their mutual understanding in the years since he was drafted, Yao reflected on the role of sports journalism:

I think this created opportunities for us. People like to watch sports games in China, in both countries, And this provided a channel for us through the sports, we extend our sense into the life in America. … Every year there are dozens of sports journalists who come to Houston to follow the Rockets games and often I would talk to them. And they all, besides the basketball game, they are also writing something about American life, how American teenagers are thinking and how people treat the game, how they think about those games. And all those are part of American culture and those package[s] are all delivered back to China through their pen.

Stern spoke to the wider benefits of basketball and, again, Yao’s role. The Chinese government, Stern observed, is focused on basketball “as a sport of exercise, fitness, good health” and teamwork, or harmony:

And especially with the concerns about obesity and diabetes, basketball has taken on a little bit of a different approach. And what we’re seeing increasingly is … a common interest/passion, and Yao is very much a focal point for that. Yao is sort of a one man policymaker for bringing these two countries together. People think of it as just about fandom, but it’s more. We’ve always viewed basketball as something that was a little bit different than the government relations and had the ability to do some melding and also working on issues of common concern.

The second panel was a discussion of U.S.-China relations from the perspective of prominent young scholars from both countries, followed by Evan Medeiros, the National Security Council’s senior director of Asian affairs.

Video clips are available here.