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When Yao Ming retired from the National Basketball Assn. last July, followers of Chinese basketball lamented that none of his countrymen were ready to take his place. Yao’s retirement, according to the New York Times, triggered “frustration over why no one in China, which has tens of millions of basketball players, appears capable of replacing him as an N.B.A. star.” By grooming players based almost solely on their height, China’s state-run sports system had developed a small army of Yao clones—fundamentally sound giants who could grab rebounds and clog the paint—but no one who could get them the ball.
Bob Donewald Jr., the American-born coach of the Shanghai Sharks, succinctly summed up China’s problem: “What’s amazing is that in a country of 1.3 billion, I can’t find a point guard.”
What Chinese basketball needs, in other words, is Jeremy Lin. It’s no surprise that, as Evan Osnos reports, Lin is the most-searched term on Baidu, China’s biggest search engine. Lin is a sensation in China largely because of his ethnicity (although his parents are immigrants from Taiwan, not mainland China). But also because he plays the game with a flowing, creative dynamism instantly recognizable to NBA fans, but which you rarely see exhibited by members of the Chinese Olympic team. Put simply, Lin plays like an American. And that may say something about what China—well on its way to passing the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy—can still learn from America.
For all the hand-wringing among pundits about American decline, the U.S. retains key advantages over such emerging powers as China. It has a more open economy, a more favorable environment for venture capital investment, and a stronger culture of innovation. Grass-roots genius can flourish far more easily in the American system than in a top-down society like China’s. As Michael Beckley writes in the current issue of International Security, when it comes to patent applications—an indicator of high-level scientific innovation—the U.S. accounts for 43 percent of the world’s patent applications in nanotechnology, 41.5 percent in biotechnology, and 20 percent to 25 percent in renewable energy technologies. (In the last category, China accounts for just 1 percent to 4 percent.) According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), the U.S.’s lead over the rest of the world in producing “knowledge and technology-intensive industries” has actually increased since 1996.
What does any of this have to do with Jeremy Lin? Much has been made of how Lin’s talents were consistently underestimated and ignored by college recruiters, professional scouts, just about every NBA general manager, and even the Knicks’ coaching staff. That reflects lingering cultural biases against Asian-American athletes. But it’s inconceivable that a player of Lin’s caliber would never have a chance to shine. The rise of Jeremy Lin shows that American meritocracy, for all its shortcomings, still works. That alone isn’t enough to prevent China from surpassing the U.S. in raw economic strength. But it can help keep America in the game.