Slam Dunking in Beijing

How America’s National Basketball Association used Global Media Networks to Serve PingPong and become China’s Favorite Sport
// by Zachary McCune

a new china


he extraordinary popularity of basketball and America’s National Basketball Association in China today offers a dramatic example of global media transforming and supplanting local culture. In just twenty years, the sport has gone from relative obscurity in China to a sport played and followed by millions. This exceptional growth is closely attached to the development of media in China and the conscious capitalization of global media networks by the National Basketball Association (NBA). Today, NBA games are broadcast live from the US by Chinese national broadcaster Chinese Central TV (CCTV) and the NBA has relationships with 51 other Chinese telecasters. Moreover, the NBA has created an organization, NBA China, to explicitly develop and maintain its media market in the country. Their website, has become the most popular sports website in the country. Cutting against history itself, basketball has dethroned ping-pong as the sport of choice among young people and China in general. The politics and cultural identities of “ping-pong diplomacy” in the cold war are fading with the rise of globalization and its media networks. The new China, it would seem, plays and watches basketball, even when the game is being played on the other side of the world. Tracking the development of basketball and the NBA in China requires a great deal of historical and theoretical contexts. In order to ask and answer the question of how this sport was popularized through media, particularly global media networks, this paper will look at theories of the global media and trace the history of media production (mostly television) in China. It will also attempt to position basketball within the larger trends and traditions of Chinese sport, particularly in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This history will reveal the importance of ping-pong in China and the ways ping-pong has been positioned as an iconic Chinese activity. The interweaving of media and sports culture in China shows how basketball under the auspices of the NBA was consciously marketed and developed for the Chinese market, and how it supplanted ping-pong as the athletic activity in contemporary China. This recent development does not mean that China has been necessarily Westernized or colonized, but rather that basketball has been in part made Chinese even as the


Chinese take on new cultural symbols and cues from this traditionally American pastime.

global theory
Global media networks are not new. This is the consensus of social theorists like John Thompson in The Media and Modernity, and Edward Herman and Robert McChesney in The Global Media. But there is something new and dramatic about the speed and ease of content transmission that contemporary global media networks allow for, and the consequences of those developments. As Thompson notes, the concurrent development of digital encoding, satellite transmission and extensive cable networks allowed for a considerable expansion of media networks, including the pervasiveness of telephone lines and the breadth of television broadcast territories. This is because “these new distribution systems are inherently transnational since, from a technical point of view, there is no reason why the reception are of a … satellite should correspond even roughly to the territorial boundaries of a particular nation-state” (Thompson 1995: 162). Indeed, the global movement of satellites “orbiting” the planet suggests the cyclical flow of content through these networks allow for. Media messages, produced and encoded in one nation are today easily and frequently relayed for consumption in another. Yet technology alone has not determined the rise and success of global media networks. For in addition to making possible the global transmission of media content, these networks have benefitted from the popularization of cross-cultural content. They have relied on and been defined by an “asymmetry” in production and consumption, with certain regions such as the United States dominating production of content far beyond its own consumption. As Thompson notes, many television stations in developing countries simply cannot afford to produce their own material at the quality of international alternatives (Thompson 1995: 163). Moreover, purchasing the rights to American television serials for example is an inexpensive way to fill broadcasting schedules (Thompson 1995: 163).


But there is also no doubt something about the cultural cachet of international content in foreign markets that causes it to be attractive for viewers who support local media providers. In a poll from 1996, 41.5% of survey respondents from 19 nations reported that they considered American “cultural fare” to be “excellent or very good” which was more than double the rate of any nation (Herman & McChesney 1997: 42). The point is, a combination of technological developments such as satellites, the need for cheap programming in developing markets, and the popularity of American media products have created pathways for global media networks to challenge and influence local culture. This is not fall into the full “cultural imperialism” debate, but to sketch a context for considering the specific case of basketball in China within a larger global trend.

tv in china
The history of television in China begins in Beijing a decade after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Initially called Beijing Television, the state owned and operated network began black and white broadcasting in 1958 (Kang 2009: 319). As Liu Kang writes, “television, like any other form of media and culture, was perceived by Mao [Zedong] to be a tool of ideological purification and political propaganda” (Kang 2009: 319). Kang further explains that while the initial adoption of TV in China was dramatic, political instability during the Cultural Revolution closed all but two television stations, and it would be until 1978 with the formal reinvention of Beijing Television as CCTV that the medium began growth anew (Kang 2009: 319). During this time, it is understood that programming for Chinese television markets came almost completely from within. Even when NBA executives first came to China to promote their game as content for CCTV, they were reportedly told that Chinese television programming must “ ‘bring honor to the motherland’ not simply entertain” (MacLeod 2006). The suggestion was that only Chinese-made content could do this, and that Mao’s initial ideas about the use of television for China had endured.


Even today, Chinese television is largely dominated by programming made by CCTV or within CCTV’s production purview. For example, every year CCTV produces and broadcasts the Spring Festival Gala, an entertainment show, which is viewed by over 1 billion viewers– over 90% of China’s population (Kang 2009: 328). This program, broadcast live from 8 pm to midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve, has become what Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz call a “media event.” According to their definition, media events are “broadcasts [that] integrate societies in a collective heartbeat and evoke a renewal of loyalty to the society and its legitimate authority” (Dayan & Katz 1992: 9). In other words, by creating television programs watched by high volumes of a population, concurrent witnessing of this “media event” becomes an important act in the life of citizens. The “media event” orients and focuses social attention on a single cultural act and with it, the meanings and systems represented by that act. Kang acknowledges this in writing that the Spring Gala Festival “has become part of the Chinese New Year’s Eve celebrations- a new custom” (Kang 2009: 328). Television has become a sort of process in China in which the Chinese annually (re) define themselves. It must be said that the popularity and importance of events like the Spring Gala Festival is directly connected to rise of television networks and television consumption. From the limited and constrained growth of TV in China in the 1960’s and 1970’s, later decades saw dramatic growth, and by the middle of this decade, Chinese television viewership was almost ubiquitous. A survey in 2004 put the number of television viewers in China at 1.2 billion. An aver age viewer watchers 3 hours of TV per day, and 20 channels per day (60 minutes of national TV, 48 minutes of provincial, and 70 minutes on local channels) (Kang 2009: 320). As this survey acknowledges, the rise in television viewership also corresponded a diversifi-


sport in modern china

cation in the number of channels and providers available to choose from. While still limited and controlled by the Chinese government, through required “approval” for entry into the Chinese market, many of these channels represent the sort of ‘global opening’ that Thompson’s network analysis mentions. For despite the use of name’s like “national” “provincial” and “local” the content of channels is not necessarily produced exclusively for that framework or within it. Instead, these levels demarcate sorts of ‘spheres of influence’ with the “national” level occupied by CCTV, and the provincial/local levels filled by growingly smaller broadcasters. Foreign programming can and is broadcast at all of these levels, as demand for international content has grown, and the economics of buying rather than making content comes into play. Alongside the development of television is the concurrent but not exactly parallel development of modern Chinese sports. Chinese reformers, revolutionaries and scholars alike historically evaluated China as lacking an ancient (read Western) competitive sports culture. Scholar Susan Brownell has written that sinologists like Herbert Giles as well as Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong equated ancient Chinese civilization with a culture of the mind that forcibly ignored the body (Brownell 2009: 340). The perceived consequences of this ignorance was that Chinese intellect developed while its martial/physical prowess atrophied, an idea that supported and informed the characterization of early 20th century China as the ‘sick man of east Asia.’ Motivated directly by this perceived discrepancy, Mao’s first published piece of writing was an essay titled ‘A Study of Physical Culture’ and when he rose to power he proclaimed “Develop physical culture and sports, strengthen the people’s physiques” (Brownell 2009: 341, 344). Both of these actions foreground the importance of sport for Mao’s idea of a modern China, ideas which would be put into practice through policy, facility construction, and education. As Brownell succinctly summarizes “sports became a key symbol in China’s quest for modernity” (Brownell 2009: 343).


Selecting the sports that “modern” China would play proved to be a telling example of its interest in competing outside of China with internationally accepted activities. For the “sports” Mao and reformers saw as necessary for China’s development were consciously nonChinese. In fact, as Susan Brownell points out, both Herbert Giles and Mao overlooked centuries of martial arts traditions such as wushu when they declared that China lacked athletic traditions (Brownell 2009: 342). Of course it did not, but the Western ideal of sport was so pervasive that activities like wushu could hardly be recognized as competitive athletic activities. For unlike sports in the west from which the very definition of sport had descended, wushu lacked clear structures for competition and traditionally was more about physical performance than contestation. Wushu’s particularity and embedded-ness in Chinese culture also made it impractical for the modern Chinese state because there were no other nations with whom Chinese wushu specialists could compete. Only by establishing an entire competitive framework drawn from Western gymnastics for the activity could wushu become like a sport (Brownell 2009: 346). With scoring systems, wushu was westernized, and China even attempted to have the modified martial art adopted as an Olympic sport. But while Japanese judo and Korean taekwondo were added to that pantheon, wushu was snubbed, partly because the Chinese had consistent political outfalls with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (Brownell 2009: 346). Since then, Chinese martial arts have become celebrated entertainments were they failed to be formal competitions, and Chinese national sport looked for new alternatives. Table tennis, called ping-pong in China, would become the most popular and iconic of China’s “modern” sports. This was closely connected to its presence in Chinese media and China’s success in the sport. While hosting the 1961 Table Tennis World Championships, Chinese Television broadcast the final games live to over 10,000 television sets. When Chi-

‘the little globe’


nese players won three gold medals, an unprecedented athletic coup for the country, viewers celebrated by writing, calling and telegraphing the station to thank them for the broadcast and express jubilation (Brownell 2009: 350-351). While the number of viewers might not have been extraordinary, the event’s mediation and its reactions follow the patterning of a “media event.” The event represented “heroic action by great men,” the athletes, “followed by the spontaneity of mass action,” in this case letters, phone calls, and telegraphs (Dayan & Katz 1992: 21). But the event was also “transformative” in that in changed China’s relationship to the sport of ping-pong (it was now a champion, and could compete at the highest level) creating “its own constituencies” of ping-pong players and fans that might not have formally existed before (Dayan & Katz 1992: 15). This is not to say that ping-pong in China was created by this event (for how could talent be developed for the victory before the fact?) but rather to acknowledge this “media event” as a watershed moment in Chinese sport. This tight interweaving of mediation and sports in China also emphasizes the fact that in a massive nation with an immense population, the televising of sporting events on national networks allowed citizens to focus on the same set of signals and content. The establishment of a national television network and the rapid improvements in tele vision transmission technology contributed to the centrality of sports in the shaping of national identity. Only the national Spring Festival programme had a larger television audience than major sports events (Brownell 2009: 353). It is worth noting that the “centrality of sports” Brownell highlights here is not an inevitable outcome of a national television network, but rather an outcome at least partially informed by the programming decisions of that network. But the important point in Brownell’s passage is that sports programming was immensely popular in China, and was viewed in connection with ideas of Chinese identity. This was at once because of the actions of the athletes in these programs, and because the popularity of sport events oriented viewers “to the


same stimulus at the same time.” The sports broadcasts were “media event connect[ing] center and periphery … through direct communion with central symbols and values” (Dayan & Katz 1992: 14, 196). From the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai, Chinese sports broadcasts connected with the periphery of the larger Chinese nation, creating an act of remote spectatorship that acknowledged (through the TV content) and produced (through concurrent watching) ideas of Chinese identity. This is closely akin to what Benedict Anderson has called the phenomena of “imagined communities” in which media technology (for Anderson print, but for Dayan & Katz television) serve to bind citizens across any number of other social and cultural differences. It is also akin to what Stuart Hall has advanced about the creation of identity in national contexts. As Hall writes, “national cultures are composed not only of cultural institutions, but of symbols and representations. A national culture is a discourse” (Hall 1992: 292-293). Even more suggestively, Hall claims that “nations are always composed of different social classes, and gender and ethnic groups” which work “across social divisions by providing them with an alternative point of identification- common membership of the ‘family of the nation’” (Hall 1992: 297). In China, sport and its televising are the “symbols and representations” of which the national culture is partly composed. Those “symbols” are not simply the game, game’s actions, players, stories, or activities, but also the television programming itself, which is broadcast in an official national language with a specific vocabulary and underlying ideology. By offering these same “symbols and representations” to both the center and the periphery, the executive and the farmer, men and women, etc. the broadcast also attempts to provide Hall’s “alternative point of identification.” In other words, simply watching Chinese sport on television gives one access to certain representations and discourse about being Chinese.


The NBA enters China
In 1987, NBA Commissioner David Stern arrived in China to pitch his product. He showed videos of NBA games to CCTV executives and offered them a revenue-sharing deal for broadcasting a game or two each week (Borger 2008). In accepting the offer, the Chinese signaled what appeared to be an unprecedented openness to Western media culture. For decades, CCTV and other Chinese television stations had produced their own content exclusively, blending the political assumptions and ideas of China into the media they produced and broadcast. And while the NBA deal certainly built on the popularity and importance of sport in modern China, David Stern’s product featured something entirely new. The games being shown featured no Chinese athletes and were being played in a country halfway around the world. Where Chinese sports broadcasts had previously focused almost exclusively on Chinese National teams and athletes, contextualizing their actions with the logic and ideology of the PRC, the NBA represented a media discourse without nationalist Chinese overtones. As small but significant “media events” the televising of NBA games represented a rupture in the ability of Chinese televising media to connect the country’s periphery to the same center its own media had. Because these “media events” were set outside of the Chinese nation-state, they no longer centered locations like Beijing or Shanghai but instead privileged American cities such as New York as centers, while making all of China a periphery. This, at least, would be one way of working through the significance of this TV deal through the theoretical frameworks of Dayan & Katz. This viewpoint would contend that the American origins of NBA game broadcasts unavoidably carried American cultural norms and identities as well. For if the “center” of NBA game broadcasts was outside of China and its cultural context then the “direct communion with central symbols and values” that Chinese media had used were now partly supplanted by American “symbols and values” embedded in the American basketball games (Dayan & Katz 1992: 196). This is not to characterize Chinese television viewers or indeed any media consumers as ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ to ‘strong media’ messages, but to emphasize through Dayan & Katz’s theory that where media are produced


within certain contexts and carry messages indicative of those socio-economic situations. For a nation like China that had very limited media access to discourses outside of its own production in 1987, this NBA television deal was therefore highly remarkable, as represented a new orientation in media consumption for China. The popularity of the NBA in China has grown dramatically. The presence of the sport in Chinese media was carefully complimented by league initiatives in China and patient marketing. To keep development managed and on track, the NBA opened an office in Hong Kong in 1992 ( 2008). At another time, the NBA hosted the Chinese National Basketball team in the US, offering free professional coaching and small games. The exchange program no doubt did more than offer the Chinese an opportunity to improve their play, as it consciously promoted the American style of play, and positioned the American league as the ultimate authority in basketball. Within China “the NBA has been careful to be seen giving more than it receives. It contributed to the rebuilding of schools hit by [2008’s] earthquake in Sichuan, and builds free courts for needy institutions” (Borger 2008). The courts, of course, directly facilitate the popularization of game, and with conspicuous NBA branding on the courts, direct amateur players towards the professional league. The NBA’s use of exhibition games in China offers a fascinating comparison in the effects of mediation. For though the mission of such professional tours has always been the same – grow the popularity and thus value of the game in China – it is the sport’s mediation that has established its value (or not) a priori. Before CCTV was showing NBA games, the Washington Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) did a tour of China in 1979 (Freedom du Lac 2009). This tour may have laid some foundations for the eventual popularity of the league in China, but it was also a very isolated incident. The NBA made no attempts to follow up on the visit, and made no deals with Chinese sports officials. Fast forward to October 2007, when the NBA brought the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic to


Beijing, and one finds a very different story. At this event, only the second since the 1979 visit, Orlando’s Dwight Howard was mobbed by fans despite his relative obscurity in the United States (Denton 2007). The media reported that nearly 300 million people in China were playing basketball, a figure close to the contemporaneous population of the entire United States (Denton 2007). This led NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver to observe “This preseason has given us a chance to bring NBA players to [China] in person. Often now it’s become a question of being able to meet a demand” (Denton 2007). This “demand” had been created by the mediation of NBA games in China. How else could the Chinese have known who Dwight Howard was? Where the 1979 Bullets arrived in China has obscure, despite the fact that they had just won the NBA Championships, the obscure arrived in China as objects of adoration in 2007. The difference between these two events can again be theorized by Dayan & Katz Media Events. In that text, the authors argue, “during the [media] event, principals are cast in mythic roles” (Dayan & Katz 2009: 191). This is to say that in widely watched sporting events, prominent athletes are positioned by the narrative of their games as “heroic” and notable. These “principals” are given identities constructed partly through their actions in a game or “contest” but disseminated through media technology and framed by the game’s significance of a “media event.” So one finds an individual like Dwight Howard has a “principal” “cast in a mythic role” by his mediation. In a 2008 international basketball game between the US and China, a Chinese sports analyst wrote of the relative failure of the game as a “media event” because it did not feature NBA players who had been made “mythic” by television broadcasts. “Except for (LeBron) James and (Dwayne) Wade,” the analyst reported “the ‘Dream Seven’ team is not so well known in China. It needs the highlights on TV first” (MacLeod 2006). Thus, who the ‘Dream Seven’ are is directly related to their presence and construction as TV subjects. They must become “highlights on TV” in order to become subjects worth going to see in person. For as the analyst regrets, the US – China game did not sell out even its small arena capacity of 10,000. But perhaps more tellingly, the CCTV


broadcast was watched by “hundreds of millions” despite taking place on a Monday evening (MacLeod 2006).

basketball rises over ‘the little globe’
The rise of basketball in China has represented a dramatic erosion in the popularity of pingpong, a sport that once dominated ideas of modern Chinese nationalism through representations of Chinese identity. In a series of celebrated photographs, Chairman Mao can be seen playing ping-pong during the 1970’s (Houmin 1962). Through early television broadcasts (discussed earlier) ping-pong created one of the sports first “media events” in China, and closely affiliated the identity of the country with the prowess of its table tennis players. Almost no history of modern China fails to write of “ping-pong diplomacy” in which Chinese ping-pong players hosted a team from the US and in the process “paved the way for China’s admission to the UN in October 1971” (Brownell 2009: 351). Because of this ping-pong has been celebrated in China as “the little globe that moved that the big globe” (Brownell 2009: 352; Xu 2006: 93). The sport has been so closely tied to the emergence of a powerful modern China, and the Chinese have been so successful at the sport in international competitions, that the game has become a symbol of the state itself. In “The Question of Cultural Identity” Stuart Hall claims, “national cultures are composed not only of cultural institutions, but of symbols and representations. A national culture is a discourse- a way of constructing meanings which influences and organizes both our actions and our conceptions of ourselves” (Hall 1992: 292-293). For China, ping-pong would be one prominent set of “symbols and representations” in its domestic national “discourse.” By allowing himself to be photographed playing ping-pong, Mao used his own symbolic value as the face of the Chinese state to endorse the playing of the sport as acceptably Chinese. In frequently screening ping-pong games, CCTV affiliated the success of the sport, and its rules, nuances, and spectatorship, to the success of the state writ large. With the aphorism


about “the little globe that moved the big globe” the sport is given direct agency in Chinese politics as a force of more than athletic contest, but also of political potential and value. In the United States, table tennis has been stereotypically connected to the Chinese with films like Balls of Fury (2007) presenting Chinese mastery of the sport alongside slapstick Western ineptitude. Within China, the sport has “organized action and conceptions of the Chinese” to paraphrase Hall, by encouraging millions to play the sport (actions) and speak of it as Chinese (conceptions). But today there is a change in the culture of China as ping-pong loses ground to basketball. The catalyst, by most reports, is the media itself and the way the media has cast basketball as a “cool”. As the Washington Post writes “Millions continue to call ping-pong China’s national game. But for younger generations, whose sports horizons have been broadened by satellite TV, Internet chat rooms and star-making advertising now available in China, there is less interest” (Fan 2008). The Asia Times Online goes further. “CCTV’s live broadcasts of table tennis games used to be as popular as live National Basketball Association matches from the United States,” said Jiang Heping, CCTV’s sports director. But there was no suspense this time as the Chinese team was too strong. ‘The audiences are not interested because of the huge gap between Chinese and foreign players,’ Jiang said” (Wong 2009). Connecting ping-pongs decline and basketball’s growth, Jiang ironically overlooks the role his very organization has played in shaping the attitudes of its Chinese audience. For who was that first showed NBA games in China? And who continues to? While others, including a Chinese middle school teacher have also lamented “we always win all the ping-pong games -- there’s no suspense,’” the mediation of basketball and its production of “cool” have been a big part of its success (Fan 2008). “‘My students prefer to play basketball” explained the same teacher “for them, it’s a symbol of coolness” (Fan 2008).


“The NBA is a very cool sport,” explained a college student in the same year “It’s the fashion, the attitude and the power” (MacLeod 2008). Given these testimonies it may be unsurprising that a NBA survey in 2007 claimed 83 % of Chinese citizens under 25 were fans of the league at some level (MacLeod 2008). These are the same citizens who have had their “sports horizons have been broadened by satellite TV” and the basketball games that come with it. By the time Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, the dominance of basketball in the country had become undeniable. The most expensive event tickets at the games (not a ceremony) were for basketball, which exceeded the second most expensive ticket –table tennis fittingly – by nearly $200 (Chinese Consulate of Manchester 2008). During the opening ceremonies, China was led not by one of its gold medal favorites or previous Olympic medal winners, but by Yao Ming, the country’s celebrated 7-foot plus NBA basketball star (Fan 2008). When he scored the opening basket against the US in an early Olympic tournament game, there was deafening roar in the arena of 18,000 and around the country as the game became “the most-viewed sporting contest ever in China” (Himmer 2008). To call this a “media event” would thus be doubly true. Like all “media events” this game synchronized and focused the population of China onto a single shared moment produced and framed by media practice. But the game was also a “media event” in that it had been constructed by media technology and global networks for over two decades. Yao Ming’s opening basket was part of a scoring drive that had displaced ping-pong, redirected the cultural attention of Chinese youth, and created a new Chinese identity that involved playing and watching basketball.

It might be tempting to characterize the rise of basketball and the NBA in China as irrefutable evidence of globalization, in which the local or traditional is supplanted wholesale by the global. But as Stuart Hall writes “instead of thinking of the global replacing the local, it would be more accurate to think of a new articulation between ‘the global’ and ‘the local.’” (Hall 1992: 304). This “new articulation” is characterized by a renegotiation and redefi-


nition of what it means to be “global” and “local.” For while the NBA has represented a “global” culture intervening in Chinese life, the NBA has also been shaped by China, taking up Yao Ming as a superstar, traveling to the country for games and promotions, and in 2008, formally offering its content in the Chinese language through Now China’s most popular website, demonstrates the interaction between these two cultures (broadly positioned as ‘global’ and ‘local’) and represents the NBA’s willingness to ‘localize’ its global brand for the particulars of the Chinese market ( 2008). This new venture is of course motivated by powerful economics including “double-digit” growth (CITE). But it also motivated by the very vitality of basketball anywhere and everywhere. For if a massive nation like China can learn to love and play and televise basketball, than basketball can escape its own former ‘local’ culture for new ‘localities’ and yes, even, ‘global’ aspirations.


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Slam Dunking in Beijing
essay prepared for master’s degree work in sociology at the university of cambridge
// by Zachary McCune

cc dec. 2010 - attribution