Li Na: The Face of Chinese Soft Power

Her success sends the kind of message that cannot be concocted by the editorial staff at People's Daily or Global Times

lina.banner.jpg"Li Na's historic win at French Open is unequivocal proof that the West has given up keeping China down."

If there was a Chinese equivalent of the The Onion, it might consider such a headline. Official Chinese press is of course leading with Li's victory, though less breathless than I'd expected. China, like any other country in these circumstances, is rightfully proud of the first Chinese female to capture a Grand Slam title. Apparently, Politburo member Liu Yandong -- the only female in the ruling body -- has already dispatched a congratulatory cable to Li. 

But I wonder if there is a modicum of hesitancy in overly trumpeting Li because her victory did not come under the aegis of the state sports program. Rather, it was a result of her individual drive and talents. It's well-known that after the Beijing Olympics, Li was one of several tennis players who chose to exit the state tennis program to strike out on their own. Li's record since that decision speaks for itself. 

I suspect such a narrative won't sit entirely comfortable with a certain set of folks in Beijing. It implies that a system that encourages freedom of choice in developing individual talents and pursuits is more effective at turning out champions than a rigid, pre-determined course. Indeed, some Chinese media have been quick to point out that despite the fact Li left the state system, she still owes a great deal to the foundation that was forged within that system. 

Maybe so. It would, however, be a shame if Beijing's mandarins cannot comprehend how Li is an exponentially better exemplar of Chinese soft power than the botched Times Square ads and similar awkward attempts. Her individualistic persona -- tattoo and all -- and sense of humor win over international audiences to a degree that the perpetually-wooden Hu Jintao never can. Recall Li's comments after advancing to the Australian Open finals, where she complained about her husband's snoring and how the thought of the prize money propelled her past the tenacious Wozniacki:

She clearly has plenty of natural poise and genuine personality that is anything but contrived. Proud of her Chineseness though she is, it is simply that, and not manufactured jingoism that is somehow meant to prove grander notions of China's capacity to play in the "major leagues." By virtue of her individual drive and competitiveness, she has already ascended to the apex of the major leagues. And unlike her native country, she buried that chip-on-the-shoulder deep in the clay at Roland Garros. Hers is the kind of soft power that cannot be concocted by the editorial staff at People's Daily or Global Times.

It would be wise if Beijing understood that. 

Image credit: Associated Press


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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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