Not Your Average Chinese Worker

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005

BEIJING, April 28 -- From Mao to Yao, China has come a long way, and not everybody here is happy about it.

As a national controversy swelled over what it means to be a worker in the China of 2005, the Communist government announced Thursday that Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch center for the Houston Rockets from Shanghai, has been honored with the title of "vanguard worker" -- even though he is a millionaire living in Texas who makes his living playing basketball.

The tribute was part of a May Day exercise in which the party labor union and government bestow medals every five years on a number of people they consider to be selfless, exemplary Chinese workers. Since the revolutionary days of Mao Zedong, the title has been given to the likes of blue-collar laborers on high-output production lines or country schoolteachers bringing literacy and correct socialist ideology to remote villages.

For many Chinese, Yao did not seem to fit the tradition, even though he and his mother recently opened a Chinese restaurant in Houston. Somehow, slam dunks and rebounds, the main elements of Yao's fabulously paid job, seemed incongruous with the duties of the model communist worker the award was meant to honor. Yao is nothing like "Iron Man" Wang Jinxi, for example, who, legend has it, earned the title in 1960 by jumping into a vat of cement and furiously agitating his limbs because his work unit had no mixers.

"Laboring people have lost their glamour," lamented a Beijing taxi driver, Liu Jingqui, 45, who suggested that giving the award to taxi drivers would be more appropriate.

But the China that idolized Wang has transformed during two decades of economic reforms and meteoric growth. The late Deng Xiaoping, China's former supreme leader, set the reforms in motion and proclaimed that to get rich was glorious. And to those who could peel back the Marxist jargon, the "Three Represents" doctrine -- introduced by former president Jiang Zemin to guide the party in modern China -- basically meant that class struggle was over and the party should embrace rich capitalists.

Reflecting the changes, the model worker candidate lists forwarded from around the country by provincial and city authorities this year for the first time contained wealthy businessmen. From there, it was a short leap to a professional basketball player.

This was particularly true because Yao's nomination was being pushed by the Municipal Federation of Trade Unions in his native Shanghai. In China's boomtown economic hub, big money, high style and ostentatious wealth have long since replaced Mao's suits and Mao's thoughts, even in the labor union.

In a statement released by his agent and relayed by the official New China News Agency, Yao, 24, expressed satisfaction at winning the honor. But he also seemed to recognize that some people might find it off-key in a country whose per-capita annual income just reached $1,000.

"I used to think that 'model worker' is the title for those ordinary laborers working hard and not paying attention to their pay," he was quoted as saying. "But now, apart from them, special 'migrant workers' like me can also win the award, which proves the development of the society."

Well, maybe. An outpouring of comment in the streets and on Web sites suggested many Chinese do not really regard Yao, who has a four-year, $18 million contract with the Rockets and makes about $10 million a year in endorsements, as a migrant worker. That label usually has been reserved for peasants who come by the millions to China's large cities to work long hours on construction sites for less than $5 a day.

"Model workers should be good examples within reach of common people by the sweat of their brow," said a contributor to Sohu.com.cn, one of the country's three most popular Internet sites. "But now the evaluation for model worker is becoming strange. It is meaningless. It should not be a star show."

Zhao Yongcheng, 47, a Beijing shopper, said he felt the awards should go to ordinary, working-class people whom young Chinese could study and emulate. "As a model, Yao is too far away from our ordinary people," he explained. "Nowadays, more and more awards tend to go into the pockets of famous people."

Even in Shanghai, some people thought the award was out of place. Zhou Yang, 27, a training consultant for a computer company, called it "weird."

"The idea of model worker seems to have become a totally different concept from what it was a decade ago," she added. "I feel they have gone a little too far if they call Yao a model worker. What he does is more like show business. It's too much for me."

The official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, responding to the complaints, noted that in fact Yao was not one of the 2,111 model workers. Instead, a union official said, he was among the 845 vanguard workers. That award is designed to honor people who may not necessarily be traditional blue-collar laborers.

The distinction seemed lost on most Chinese, who continued with their debate over Yao's status. In any case, said Huang Yuan, a spokesman in the union's preparation committee, the designation will not be official until a ceremony scheduled for Saturday in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

But the gleeful Shanghai union federation broke the news early, saying the government had given its go-ahead for Yao's designation as a model worker. The announcement was spread, in those terms, by Shanghai newspapers and the New China News Agency.

"In recent years, he attended two Olympic Games in the name of the country, and he also attended other basketball games around the world," Yin Weimin, the preparation committee's deputy director, said at a news conference last week. "We think Yao fits the nomination qualifications."

Song Naihua, 56, who runs a consulting company in Shanghai, agreed that Yao deserved the title in China's new context.

"Traditionally, the title was given to workers and farmers," he said, "but as the country is developing and entering a new era, it should also be extended to people in other fields who make equally important contributions to development of the society and the country."

Baloney, said Liu, the taxi driver. "In fact," he added, "I don't care who is a model worker or a vanguard worker anymore. Today's model worker or vanguard worker is no longer a real one as in the past."

Researchers Zhang Jing in Beijing and Eva Woo in Shanghai contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company