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Yes, Jeremy Lin is big in China -- but China is also very big

Chris Trotman / Getty Images

Fans cheer on Jeremy Lin against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.

BEIJING — He means something to many people: Asian Americans, underdogs, geeks, Ivy Leaguers, sports fans, Christians, anyone who loves a great story.

But Jeremy Lin — the Harvard graduate of Chinese descent born in Palo Alto, California, to Taiwan parents — is not the same thing to all Chinese.

If ever there were one event that has the potential to show how fractured Chinese communities can be, "Linsanity" — or linfengkuang in Chinese — might be it.

For days now, we in Beijing have been fielding emails from our U.S. colleagues: “Hey, we hear Lin’s big in China now?  He’s on the cover of the New York Post!”  “The NY Knicks player is having a Cinderella week… he’s being noticed/watched in China….”

For the record, yes, he’s big in mainland China. 

It’s been widely reported that his Sina Weibo account (a popular Chinese version of Twitter) clocked more than a million followers as he led the Knicks to victory over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — more than doubling the number he had the night he faced off with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers last Friday.

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On Taobao, China’s leading e-commerce site, shoppers can buy copies of Lin’s Knicks jersey and t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing his number “17.”  A quick look suggests the merchandise isn’t moving as briskly as Weibo messages about the athlete, but it’s an impressive range of goods nonetheless.  In the brick and mortar world, however, his jersey — even counterfeit versions — is said to be selling out.

Jeremy Lin shirts are so popular that they are selling out at various retailers, with CNBC's Darren Rovell.

But mainland China is also very big.

Let’s go back to Weibo.  Lin’s following, large as it sounds, is still just a fraction of some high-profile mainland Chinese.  Pan Shiyi — a Beijing-based property mogul some people liken to Donald Trump — has 8.6 million followers.  Hong Huang — a publisher and commentator who is often described as the "Oprah of China" — has four million.  Lee Kai-fu, the former head of Google China, has 11 million.

The comparisons may be unfair since none of these Chinese are athletes and all have had profiles on Weibo for longer.  But high-profile mainland athletes like Yao Ming, Guo Jingjing (the glamorous Olympic gold-medallist female diver), Liu Xiang (the Olympic gold-medallist hurdler) don’t have a presence on Weibo.  Only Yi Jianlian has a profile; the mainland Chinese NBA athlete who plays for the Dallas Mavericks has 6.5 million followers.

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In the offline world, Lin’s name is not on everyone’s lips the way it seems in the U.S.  It’s not perfect evidence, but a random sampling of Beijing taxi drivers, normally glued to radio news, this morning came up blank.  “We only know Yao Ming,” said one cabbie.

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There’s been steady speculation about why China’s state-run media has been muted with its reporting on the Lin phenomenon and why CCTV — normally awash with NBA coverage — has not been broadcasting his games.  (New York City Time Warner subscribers, we share your pain.)

 “Mr Lin is a trickier fit for Beijing’s propagandists,” one Western report noted.  “His Christianity is perhaps more awkward for China’s atheist Communist rulers. While Beijing officially sanctions some churches, it frowns on the spontaneous professions of love for God that pepper Mr Lin’s postgame comments.”

Lin’s success has also raised the inevitable and perhaps unwelcome question (at least in the mainland) “Could China, an Olympic powerhouse and homeland of Yao Ming, produce such a gifted, confident point guard?”  As the journalist pointed out, not for now.  Not given the state-run sports industry or its rigid approach to training and talent-spotting. 

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Then, of course, there’s the fact Lin’s parents come from Taiwan, which has engaged in a fractious rivalry with mainland China for nearly 70 years.  Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province while the latter regards itself an independent nation.

Tug o’ war over the favorite son
Over the weekend, folks in China’s Zhejiang Province, the ancestral home of the athlete’s maternal grandmother, laid claim to him.   And today, a local newspaper re-posted photos from Lin’s visit to his mother’s hometown last May. 

The accompanying article opens with the following lines: “Lin Shuhao became famous overnight.  But what we here are more proud of is his roots here in Pinghu.”  It concludes with a quote from Lin’s mother saying the family might return to Pinghu again this summer.

The media in Taiwan — which has hailed Lin as one of their own — have taken notice.  Local newspapers on the island today went on a blitzkrieg to assert Lin’s Taiwan identity, quoting family relatives, and also claimed Lin might visit the island this summer.  The coverage followed a report in the New York Times, which quoted Lin’s uncle in Taiwan as saying about the Knicks player and his parents, “For sure, they are Taiwanese.”

Sam Yeh / AFP - Getty Images

Jeremy Lin featured on the front page of many newspapers in Taipei, Taiwan, on Sunday.

Since Lin’s debut for the Knicks on February 4th, Taiwan’s local media have given the overnight sensation blanket coverage, and there has been no problem catching any of his games live on television.  “They’re broadcast live in the morning,” one of my uncles who has spent the past month in Taipei told me.  “And then they’re shown twice again later in the day.  And every newscast has packaged highlights of every game.”

And, yet, something still seems to ring hollow about the mainland's or Taiwan's scramble to call Lin one of their own.  One of the mainland Chinese readers who responded to the local Zhejiang newspaper report put it succinctly: "He's American.  You should be ashamed of yourself trying to dig up his maternal ancestral grave."  In fact, many Chinese--in dismissing comparisons between Lin and Yao Ming--have argued that Lin is distinctly American, has nothing to do with China, and didn't experience the cultural and language adjustment that Yao underwent when he moved to the U.S. to play in the NBA.

But then there are the American-born Chinese (ABCs).

'A watershed moment'
Judging by the flood of columns by Chinese-American commentators, Lin’s success means more to this cohort than any other community:

Eric Liu: “[The Knicks fans’] embrace of Lin has made millions of Asian Americans feel vicariously, thrillingly embraced. Not invisible. Not presumed foreign. Just part of the team, belonging in the game. It’s felt like a breakout moment: for Lin, for Asian America and, thus, for America.”

Jeff Yang: “It’s hard not to feel like this isn’t a watershed moment. Hard not to feel like this is historic. Hard not to think that we’re at the cusp of an actual tectonic shift in the culture, when an Asian American “kid” could be the unquestioned king of one of the most storied franchises in sports, the guy that every guy in the room wishes he could meet and every kid in the room wants to group up to be.”

Ling Woo Liu: “For those who've been following the campaign ad controversies as well as the [Harry] Lew and [Danny] Chen cases, Lin's meteoric rise has been a much-needed sign of hope.

Bryan Chu: “Some might say, why didn’t Yao Ming evoke this type of emotion in you?  The difference is that Jeremy is one of us. He was born in the U.S. He was that kid who got straight A’s in school. He was the one that worked at his high school student newspaper. He has a bit of an Americanized accent when he speaks Mandarin. He had a pipe dream of making it to the NBA. He’s humble and sometimes misperceived as a shy, Asian kid who shows flashes of brilliance and then finally explodes on the scene when he’s given a chance. He’s the guy friend who, if he needs a place to crash, will be thankful for a couch.”

With additional reporting by Bo Gu.