Is Yao Ming a sign of future possibilities for Rising State Celebrities?

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This blog post introduces two very different themes about celebrity activism.

The first theme concerns the role (or arguably the non-role) of sports celebrities as pivotal activists. Although some sports celebrities do involve themselves in causes there is no sports equivalent to a Bono, Angelina or George Clooney.  Why don’t sports entertainers not rise to the top in celebrity activitism?  Is it because of the team dimension? Or is it because of some socialization process that puts the emphasis solely on commercial endorsements? The exceptions to this rule (quite a few from non-US backgrounds) we need to examine but the reasons for this material difference needs to be explored.

The second theme concerns the role of celebrity activity generally in the ‘Global South’ and specifically in the BRICSAM countries. Up to now we have looked exclusively at celebrity activism in the ‘Anglo-sphere’. However, as the BRICSAM countries ascend it is likely that celebrity activism will arise from/in those countries as well.

China is at the top of the list of BRICSAM countries in terms of the impact of its rise, a condition that will be showcased this week with the state visit of President Hu Jintao to the US.

Yet, when we look at Chinese celebrity activism few individuals have appeared to gain a global/universal reach. Readers may differ but I would suggest that action film superstar Jackie Chan (a UNICEF/UNAIDS goodwill ambassador) is the best known of the established celebrity activists – though he is from Hong Kong as opposed to the Mainland.

Although China has its unique political/cultural character, some of the constraints on sports figures are familiar to the western world. A search of the biography of Liu Xiang, the talented hurdler (whose injury in the Beijing Olympics was a major disappointment) gives an indication of the obstacles: a combination of major commercial endorsements and the massive time obligations for training.

Such constraints however may loosen up in the future. The profile of Yao Ming, the iconic Shanghai Sharks/NBA basketball star, signals some of the possibilities of a Chinese sports celebrity gaining a global/universal reach. While Yao has an impressive set of commercial endorsements, he has also become a leading sports figure in terms of charity activities. He donated a big component of time and resources ($2 million of his own money and major initiatives through the Yao Ming Foundation for rebuilding efforts) in the aftermath of the calamitous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He has worked with a number of other engaged sportsmen (Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash) on events, including back-to-back charity basketball games in Beijing and Taipei on July 24/28 2010.

While most of his work highlights the value of constructive engagement, it is also worthwhile mentioning that Yao Ming is on some issues prepared to be associated with causes that contain some societal sensitivity. One that jumps out is Yao’s willingness to support Wild Aid’s campaign on endangered species (notably his public campaign to deter the consumption of shark fin soup). Although not as much on the radar as the efforts by western celebrities to cultivate a more healthy life-style (see for instance an interesting article by David Ritter in Global Policy on the efforts by celebrity chefs to highlight the crisis in the world’s fisheries> this alternative form of engagement showcases some future unanticipated possibilities of celebrity activism/diplomacy.

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