Shadow Government

Jeremy Lin and U.S.-China relations

Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the ...

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Last week might turn out to be a very significant week in U.S.-China relations, but perhaps not for the reasons most people would think. For foreign policy mavens, the big news last week was the visit of Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent to the Party throne, Xi Jinping. For almost everyone else in the country, the big news was the supernova-like emergence of NBA star Jeremy Lin.

Ten or twenty years from now, when we look back on this past week, which event will be seen as more important for U.S.-China relations and the future of China itself? No one can yet say, and while the safe bet from the policy-maker’s vantage point might be the Xi Jinping visit and its anticipation of his decade-long rule, we shouldn’t make the same mistake made by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and count out the Jeremy Lin story. Before I go any further, I admit that even indulging in these speculations risks tripping headlong over the "wait just a second, people" admonition wisely offered by Dan Drezner against investing Jeremy Lin with any Deeper Meaning.  And as my former NSC colleague Victor Cha (a scholar of sports and Asia policy) points out, those who hope that Lin’s stardom might help improve the complicated U.S.-China relationship are probably indulging in wishful thinking.

First, some context. Continuing in our occasional theme of reflecting on what history can bring to policymaking, one thing history offers is a sense of perspective, a reminder that the most consequential events are often not immediately apparent at the time they occur. As my University of Texas-Austin colleague Frank Gavin has observed, three separate developments from California in the space of a few months in 1976-77 were the creation of Apple computer, the release of the movie Star Wars, and the unprecedented medals awarded to a group of Stag’s Leap Napa wines in a Paris tasting contest. Though seemingly unrelated and not fully appreciated at the time, together these events heralded a new era of American culture’s global influence, historically far more consequential than the Carter administration’s first few months in office. Or more recently, who could have predicted on Dec. 17, 2010 that the most globally important event that day would be the self-immolation of an obscure street vendor in a seemingly insignificant North African country?

Turning back to the two China-related events of last week, the Xi visit and the Lin stardom, Steve Walt makes some persuasive points about why Xi as an individual leader might not be a primary factor shaping the U.S.-China relationship. I suspect this could underplay Xi’s importance, given the hard choices China will have to make over the next decade on issues such as rebalancing its economy, addressing its many restive borders, decreasing corruption, and clarifying its strategic intentions in the western Pacific. Much of that, however, depends on the Communist Party continuing to hold its monopoly on power, and here is where Jeremy Lin could bring an added complication.

Lin has already become a cultural phenomenon in China, benefitting in part from the legions of Chinese basketball fans first cultivated by Yao Ming. Yet if Yao Ming’s roots and identity were unequivocally mainland Chinese, Lin’s identity is not so straightforward. His Taiwan roots could at the least complicate the mainland’s popular attitudes that see the island as a renegade province. Perhaps more significantly, his evangelical Christian faith appeals to the tens of millions of house-church Christians in China, who sometimes at great risk worship outside the control of government-approved religious bodies. And his faith might also inspire otherwise non-religious Chinese, further adding to Christianity’s explosive growth in China. All of this in turn poses a delicate challenge for a Communist Party that has thus far co-opted every successive new communication technology to surveil and tightly manage the information available to its citizens: How to control the message and image of Jeremy Lin that an adoring public perceives? Especially if Lin continues to play well and popular demand for information about him grows?

How this develops will depend on many factors, including whether Lin continues to play great hoops (hopefully), whether he continues to speak openly about his faith (likely), whether he ever comments about political issues such as religious freedom in China or the status of Taiwan (possible but less likely), and especially how the tension between the Chinese government’s need for control and the Chinese public’s hunger for information plays out (anything is possible). To be clear to readers (especially those named "Dan Drezner"!), this is not a case of feverish "Linsanity" arguing that Lin will cause democratization in China. (Only rabid Duke fans such as my Shadow co-curator are prone to investing basketball with such cosmic significance). Rather, this is a speculation that China’s response to Lin’s emergence could possibly play a part in fueling a movement for political change based on a host of other pre-existing factors. Or not. Only time will tell, and history will judge.  

Regardless, it seems that the White House’s overemphasis on the role of the Communist Party in the U.S.-China relationship may account for the Obama administration’s one major mistake in its otherwise successful management of Xi’s visit. This was the White House’s refusal to support Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook’s visit to China. Ambassador Cook’s long-planned maiden trip was blocked by the Chinese government, while the White House, concerned about the Xi visit, apparently failed to press Cook’s case with Beijing. This was strategically shortsighted, especially since in the long run religious citizens in China may well do more to shape China’s future than an individual party leader. Furthermore, the failure to support Ambassador Cook’s visa set a bad precedent for U.S. credibility on a range of issues, and conceded undue leverage to the Chinese government. After all, Beijing needed the Xi visit more than the U.S. did, and a quiet message from Washington to Beijing stressing that denying Cook her visa "would not be helpful" to the optics of Xi’s trip would have likely done the trick.

How to remedy this? Next time President Obama, Vice President Biden, or Secretary Clinton meets with one of China’s leaders, they should make sure that Ambassador Cook is also at the table, and should tell the Chinese that she enjoys the president’s support on this important issue. Then to keep the tone agreeable, perhaps the conversation can turn to a topic everyone would find of interest, such as Jeremy Lin’s most recent game.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.