Her success sends the kind of message that cannot be concocted by the editorial staff at People's Daily or Global Times
"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.
Damien Ma is a Fellow at The Paulson Institute, focused on investment and policy programs and 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.
Damien Ma is a Fellow at The Paulson Institute, focused on investment and policy programs and 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. He specialized in analyzing the intersection between Chinese policies and markets, with a particular focus on energy and commodities, industrial policy, U.S.-China trade, and social and internet policies. His advisory and analytical work served a range of clients, from institutional investors and multinational corporations to the U.S. government. Prior to joining Eurasia Group, he worked at a public relations firm in Beijing, where he served clients ranging from Ford to Microsoft. He also was a manager of publications at the U.S.-China Business Council in Washington, DC.
Ma writes regularly for The Atlantic online and publishes widely, including in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy, as well as appearing in a range of broadcast media, such as the Charlie Rose Show, Bloomberg, and the PBS NewsHour. He also served as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is currently working on his first book on China (co-authored). He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and some Shanghainese dialect.