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Working-Class Hero? NBA Star Nets China’s Proletarian Award

Times Staff Writer

At the height of Mao Tse-tung’s push to make China an industrial giant, the model Communist worker was someone like the famed Iron Man Wang, an illiterate peasant so dedicated to building the nation that he once leaped into a construction pit to mix cement with his own body.

Now, in a land of cellphones, high-tech workers and instant millionaires, photos of Iron Man Wang are literally museum pieces.

The new model worker stands 7 foot 6, wears baggy shorts to work and wields a deft hook shot. Instead of construction pits, he leaps into seas of autograph seekers and a custom-fitted BMW 745 -- the one with the back seat removed.

What’s more, he doesn’t even work in China.

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Take a bow, Yao Ming.

The ruling Communist Party on Wednesday named the Houston Rockets’ center a model worker for this year’s May Day celebration. The list of nominees, which once honored hard-working factory employees and paraded them before the masses as inspiration, now celebrates the NBA star, the chief executive of a software company and the chairman of an investment firm.

Even Yao, who has a four-year contract with the Rockets worth $17.8 million, was surprised.

“Before, I thought model workers only recognized ordinary people who worked tirelessly and without asking for anything in return,” the 24-year-old Yao said through his agent. “Now the award also includes someone like me, a special kind of migrant worker. That’s a sign of progress.”

Some Chinese say the party should extol the success of socialist heroes, as it did before.

“It’s absurd,” Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People’s University in Beijing, said of Yao’s award. “Model workers should be ordinary people you can look up to and imitate. Yao Ming is an NBA star. That’s honor enough. Besides, what he does, it’s impossible for ordinary people to imitate.”

But for Communists hoping to generate interest in a contest that many call a relic of a bygone era, no one is a better pitchman than Yao.

In nominating him for the proletariat hall of fame, the Shanghai municipal government argued that its native son was the slam-dunk symbol of a new China.

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To many of his fans, the “Little Giant,” as Yao is affectionately known here, is a patriotic poster child. As a condition for joining the NBA, he was required to give half his NBA salary to Chinese sports authorities. It is unclear how much they will take from the $70 million in endorsement fees he is expected to receive over the next 10 years from such corporations as McDonald’s, Apple Computer, Visa International, watchmaker Tag Heuer and Garmin, a maker of global-positioning products.

During the off-season, Yao splits his time between Houston and Shanghai. Despite being an international megastar, Yao never relinquished his duty as China’s most valuable player. Whenever his country team is in need, he flies right back and does as he is told.

Yao’s NBA salary alone makes him one of China’s most profitable exports to the United States. But officials deny that his cash-cow status was a factor in his selection as a model worker.

“Yao Ming is nominated because he meets all the qualifications of a model worker,” said Yin Weimin, deputy minister in the Chinese Ministry of Personnel, which selects the model workers. “He is a great athlete. He has contributed greatly to the development of the basketball industry in China and gained much glory for the country. His personal wealth is another issue.”

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The evolution of the model worker contest mirrors the dramatic changes that have swept China since the Communists came to power more than five decades ago.

The early role models included Shi Chuanxiang, who devoted more than 40 years of his life to shoveling and carrying manure from hole-in-the-ground public bathrooms in Beijing. State media say Shi was so dedicated that he didn’t take time off, even for his own wedding. His bride carried a rooster as a stand-in during the marriage ceremony.

Mao’s archetypal model worker was Iron Man Wang Jinxi. He was the leader of a drilling brigade when oil was discovered in 1960 in Daqing, near China’s frozen northeastern border with Russia. Government propaganda often repeated his battle cry, an impassioned promise to do whatever it took to pump oil for China, even if it meant “giving up 20 years of my life.”

Wang died at the age of 47. Grainy black-and-whites at the Memorial Hall of the Iron Man in Daqing show him indeed mixing cement with his body.

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Since market-oriented reforms were launched more than 20 years ago, the party began to expand the definition of the “people’s vanguard.” Intellectuals joined the ranks of model workers. But the lack of accountability in the selection gave rise to a patronage system that rewarded political elites.

To the government’s embarrassment, in recent years several model workers have been convicted of stealing public assets. They include a party secretary at a Beijing electronics factory, the deputy manager of a construction company in Hunan province and a transportation department head in Henan province.

In the past, model workers received social benefits such as better housing and a coveted university admission. Now they receive the equivalent of $1,800.

“It comes with perks like high social status and TV appearances,” said Zhou, the sociologist. “It’s a kind of personal branding.”

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To give the awards more legitimacy this year, authorities made changes. Capitalists, once seen as oppressors of the people, can now receive the nation’s top honor.

So can migrant workers -- the estimated 210 million people who left their rural homes for jobs in China’s booming cities.

Migrant workers and entrepreneurs made up a minority of the estimated 2,900 nominees this year.

Aside from Yao, the government offered little information about the nominees. About 80% of them are party members, and half work for state-owned enterprises. About 20% are farmers.

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Some observers said Beijing included migrant workers and capitalists to create the impression that it was promoting a more pluralistic society.

“The party is trying to present itself as a party that represents everybody, all social classes without exception,” said Robin Munro, research director of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based group that monitors the treatment of workers in China.

“The government feels it needs celebrity endorsement of someone like Yao Ming to make itself more popular. It’s a pointless distraction from the real issues facing China as a whole.”

Many migrant workers who toil long hours, receive meager pay and have no elected representatives to negotiate on their behalf say they do not know the criteria for being a model worker.

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“What’s the point of understanding it? They will never pick one of us,” said Wei Yanzhou, 42, a welder from Hubei province who is helping to build what is expected to be the tallest building in Beijing.

Wei works about 12 hours a day, seven days a week for about $100 a month. If he takes a sick day, the boss deducts the day’s wage from his pay.

Wei considers himself lucky. Many migrant workers receive no wages at all from employers who claim to be bankrupt or disappear with laborers’ hard-earned money.

At the end of the day, workers like Wei are shuttled back to factory dorms where they sleep more than a dozen to a small room. There is no hot running water, no heat or ventilation and little food.

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“We eat cabbage three times a day. Sometimes the rice has sand in it,” said bricklayer Zhu Zhou, who looks a decade older than his 40 years. “We see meat maybe twice a week. We don’t even get enough drinking water, never mind a shower.”

The workers say they get no days off, not even during the weeklong May Day celebration.

“They should pick us as model workers,” said Fu Xiewen, 31, a carpenter from Anhui province. “Everybody already knows who Yao Ming is. He’s a star. We are nobodies.

“We can sure use some improvements in our living conditions.”

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Times staff writer Jerry Crowe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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