At 31, Yao is the youngest member of the 142 member committee charged with advising the Communist Party on issues that affect the public interest.
Zhang Chi, a spokesman for Yao Ming told the China Daily that despite taking the position, Yao had no political aspirations beyond pushing policies related to sports and charity, saying, “Yao wants to use his influence to do good deeds for society, but not to seek a political position.”
Judging by what he saw on the first few days on the job, who can blame him?
On Sunday, Yao took his seat on the committee to much fanfare. Unfortunately for the other members there, the assembled media stuck around long enough to catch – and publish – what many of these consultative meetings often look like: a snooze-fest.
With arms-folded and intent gaze, Yao is seen in one picture listening attentively while his fellow committee members doze off.
The picture was picked up on by China’s microblogging sphere and soon went viral. Some netizens pointedly suggested that the photos may have come during a break in the committee hearings, but most people responded with amusement to the scene they’ve come to expect from such events.
“Poor Yao, he probably regrets being that tall and not being able to sleep!” wrote one commentator on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo.
“Yao Ming is still new to meetings like this,” wrote another before continuing, “He’ll be just like the rest of them soon enough.”
Retired NBA basketball star Yao Ming holds a panda during a ceremony for the release of six pandas in the Panda Valley natural reserve in Dujiangyan, in southwestern China's Sichuan province on Wednesday.
By Ed Flanagan, NBC News Producer
BEIJING – Retired NBA star, Yao Ming, carved out an eight-year career protecting the hoop in the NBA. His next defensive assignment though may be a considerably taller task for the 7’6” all-star, if not a lot cuter and fuzzier than his former basketball opponents.
Yao was in the central Chinese province of Sichuan on Wednesday, where he presided over the opening of a new phase in the giant panda-breeding program that some experts hope will help pandas born in captivity eventually assimilate back into the wild through a regimen of acclimation and survival training.
“I think it is most important to keep a balance between modern living and nature,” said Yao to reporters in Sichuan. “We have been talking about it for many years but it is never an easy thing to do.”
China Photos / Getty Images Contributor
Giant Panda "Yingying," eats bamboo at the enclosed Panda Valley natural reserve after being released into the semi-wild in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, China on Wednesday.
Chinese experts constructed a $4.75 million habitat called “Panda Valley” in the area around the town of Dujiangyan – a place heavily hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The 50-acre park will serve as a large, open-area school where researchers will be able to slowly teach the pandas the art of survival in the harsh, elevated mountain wilderness that pandas thrive in.
Over time, organizers plan to expand the panda habitat to eventually allow for up to 30 pandas to live there. It is hoped that eventually 100 pandas from this facility will be released back into the wild over the next 50 years.
Panda researchers in China screened the 108 pandas in captivity at the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan over the period of a year and whittled the list down to six final candidates. The roster included such panda celebrities as twin brothers, Xingrong and Xingya, and one panda named Gongzai, who was the inspiration for “Po” the rotund, fighting panda featured in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies.
These pandas were selected for this pilot project based on criteria that encompassed age, health and genetic background.
It is hoped that the pandas selected will demonstrate the best combination of strength to defend themselves from wild pandas, while being young enough to allow them the opportunity to grow up and adapt to their wild surroundings.
The ultimate goal is for these pandas to grow up, assimilate into the wild and give birth to new pandas ready to survive in the wild.
China Daily / Reuters
Former NBA player Yao Ming and his wife Ye Li play with giant panda cubs at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Wednesday.
The preserve’s opening comes as China is in the midst of a nationwide panda census that is conducted every ten years. There are an estimated 1,600 pandas living in the wild and an additional 300 living in captivity.
Despite China being at the forefront of panda research and the masters of a highly successful breeding program, some experts feel that the park is simply too expensive and that previous attempts to create similar preserves for other species have come with mixed results.
A similar attempt to reintroduce pandas back into the wild in China ended in failure in 2007 when Xiang Xiang, a five-year-old male panda trained for three years by researchers was found dead after he was killed by wild pandas.
BEIJING –With one final press conference in Shanghai, Yao Ming officially retired from basketball, ending weeks of testimonials and news reports fondly recapping his NBA rise and impact on the game.
Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo
NBA star Yao Ming waves to guests during a press conference in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, July 20, 2011. Yao announced his retirement to a packed room of Chinese and foreign journalists.
In coverage fit for a Chinese state leader, Yao’s entire retirement speech was posted on China Daily’s website soon after the announcement earlier today and China’s state television broadcaster, CCTV, was said to be planning five continuous hours of coverage on the eight-time all-star’s decision to formally end his career.
Five hours of coverage is indeed ambitious, but where does one start when synthesizing Yao’s basketball legacy and global influence into one storyline? Yao himself probably did it best during his press conference when he referred to himself as an “historian,” an apt description for a man whose ascension to the top of the basketball world coincided with China’s own meteoric economic rise.
But reading through the heaps of reporting, it is clear that the meaning of Yao’s career is truly in the eye of the beholder. In Chinese newspapers like the nationalistic Global Times, Yao was described glowingly as a “Chinese image ambassador,” who “contributed immensely to the development of the NBA in China, making millions of Chinese care for the game.”
That Yao did all of this for nine seasons while never shunning his higher responsibilities to the Chinese national team is precisely the type of lesson that the Global Times felt that his legacy should bring to Yao’s successors.
Others wonder whether Yao’s legacy is the starting point for an ongoing debate here over why China has been unsuccessful in developing other NBA stars in the years following his being drafted first overall in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Did Chinese basketball get complacent after Yao became the country’s first global superstar? That is the question an excellent article in the New York Times posed earlier this week on Chinese basketball’s squandered opportunities to use Yao’s popularity to install the grassroots programs so badly needed to allow NBA-worthy talent to blossom.
What has resulted is another manifestation of the old debate here in China: opening up athletes’ training to private development versus the status quo of the guiding hand of the all-encompassing state institutions.
Chinese fans of Yao Ming react to news of the basketball giant's retirement.
As we have seen with tennis superstar Li Na – another early product of China’s state sports system who broke away – the policy of letting athletes “fly alone” and plan their own career paths is certainly making headway here. However, it will likely face long-term resistance from a risk-adverse state institution, especially one that faces added pressure to perform on the world stage after achieving such success at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Market penetration What is not in question is the interest that Yao’s career sparked on both sides of the Pacific. American fans quickly warmed to the 7’6” center who was charming – if limited in his English skills – and affable, often showing a comedic touch that made him a hit with advertisers like Apple, McDonalds and Visa, who all rushed to sign him to endorsement deals (see Visa commercial below).
Chinese endorsement agreements with the likes of China Telecom were also quick to follow, but what was far more astonishing was how quickly the NBA took off in China once Yao took his talents to Houston. It is said today that there are 300 million NBA fans in China, but ones does not need to spend much time here to know how ubiquitous the league has become.
Basketball courts have sprung up all over the mainland, while the streets of Chinese cities are lined with young fans decked out in the jerseys of their favorite NBA heroes. Sprite and Pepsi cans often have NBA players plastered on them, and in the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008, it was difficult not to walk by a McDonalds that did not have at least one Yao Ming cutout draped with Chinese fans happily mugging for a camera.
Bill Baptist - NBAE/Getty Images
Yao Ming averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds a game during a 9 season NBA career with the Houston Rockets.
No surprise then that Yao’s personal brand valued at $1 billion regularly tops lists that measure the value of sports celebrities and their international appeal.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Yao’s career has been a financial windfall for the NBA, making the organization truly one of the great success stories of American business in China. Few U.S. companies or industries can boast to the degree that the NBA can about its success in China. Similarly, few companies can point to the transformative effect that China has had on the way it does business.
In addition to Chinese advertisements now being a regular presence on the sidelines of NBA courts all over the United States, the NBA’s Chinese language website is said to get on average 12 million hits a day. Meanwhile, the NBA’s players have taken notice.
In greater numbers now, American players are turning their backs on shoe giants like Nike and Adidas and signing lucrative endorsement deals with Chinese apparel companies. To stay connected to Chinese fans during the season, players like Tracy McGrady, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant have taken to maintaining Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) accounts. During the off-season, players ranging in ability from NBA superstars to fringe starters have become regular fixtures in China during the NBA off-season, offering training camps, promotional tours and in some cases – most notably Stephon Marbury – agreeing to eventually play here.
Despite their successes in spurring the NBA forward, American players will now need to ride out the inevitable next step in the game’s development in China: the Post-Yao Age. Even before Yao’s press conference today, there were concerns that NBA interest in China may wane. An AP article published last week cited an online poll on Weibo that showed 57 percent of respondents would no longer continue watching the NBA after Yao’s retirement.
Further clouding the future of the league in China is the murky status of labor negotiations between the NBA and the Players Association, which are reportedly scheduled to meet this Friday but remain far apart on revenue sharing.
But even on this divisive issue, China’s rise as a primary market for the NBA is apparent. As the Players Association urges its members to look abroad for playing offers, many athletes have turned to China despite more competitive leagues being available in Europe.
Players such as the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Dorell Wright have all expressed interest in playing in China should the NBA season not begin as scheduled. Kobe Bryant himself, already in Shanghai for a skills camp he runs, has come out in recent weeks with preliminary plans for an all-star studded three city China tour that would last between two and three weeks.
Over the years, basketball pundits have described Yao as a “finesse player” who had trouble banging inside with the big men of the NBA. Ironic then that his efforts have pushed talented NBA scorers out of their comfort zones to his home turf.