For about an hour last week, Chinese social media exploded when footage began to circulate that appeared to show Yao Ming being arrested by state police. Captioning both the images and video were allegations that the iconic basketball player had been popped for drug possession. To make things worse, it took place at a basketball tournament near the Yangzte River Delta and in full view of the public.
On first look, things looked pretty bad but it took minutes for Chinese media to debunk the footage circulating the internet. Yao had not been cuffed by the police but rather had his hands behind his back as he shuffled behind a police escort that he needs for most public appearances. The Shanghai Sharks, the CBA team Yao owns, also released a statement and strongly dismissed the images as doctored
But by then, the damage had been done and a section of the vast Chinese social media populace was discussing the arrest of the sporting icon.
In the hours and days that followed, local media got in line to angrily denounce the treatment of Yao. ‘How can you so disgrace the pride of Chinese basketball?!’ thundered one columnist for Sohu Sports. In a moment of remarkable irony, Sina, whose previous issue with sleazy journalism include inviting readers to contrast the attractiveness of a national team player’s estranged wife and mistress (and who at the time of this article are running photos of a cheerleader’s arse tattoos on their front page), also tsk-tsked.
Most regular Chinese have also been disgusted by the smear job. On social media and elsewhere, there have been calls for the authors of the internet post to be found and prosecuted. Given Yao’s universal popularity in China, it seems likely the the infamous ‘human flesh search engine’ may soon go into overdrive in search of the culprit(s).
For Yao himself, the quasi-scandal has also difficult. When asked by a reporter how he felt in the aftermath of the situation, a clearly emotional Yao answered that he was ‘very troubled’ by what had happened and went on to talk about the impact it had on his family.
Yao’s frustration is understandable. At the time of writing, Chinese high society remains under siege from Xi Jinpeng’s ‘Tigers and Flies’ anti-corruption drive, a very public purging of corrupt officials that doubles as a means of entrenching Xi loyalists within the Chinese Communist Party. After four years of high profile arrests, it would have been possible to assume that Yao, who has been a public member of the political body that rubber-stamps CCP policy, had been arrested as part of those sweeps.
On a personal level, this is also another example of Yao’s goldfish bowl existence in China and how his private life is often a matter for public analysis. There remains the oft-discussed rumor that Yao turned down a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Japanese car brand, Toyota, for reasons of ‘patriotism’. Meanwhile, his daughter’s nationality (Yao Qinlei was born in Houston and has a US passport) is also an issue that annoys some nationalists.
From personal experience, Yao’s appearance at Shanghai Sharks’ games was akin to watching an emperor arrive, with many spectators more interested in getting near his private box for an autograph than to watch the game. When he tried to study for a university degree after retiring in 2011, he had to study one-on-one to avoid gawking students and the media.
As demonstrated by his adventures in the River Delta, Yao cannot make public appearances within masses of security. Given how hard it is to hide from public view (sometimes literally), this is a further example of the difficulty Yao has living a normal life post retirement.