“Linsanity,” Social Media and US-Asia Relations by Dr. ELINA NOOR
Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ former benchwarmer and now worldwide basketball sensation, is the new Cinderella Man or “Linderella” of basketball, and maybe even more. As the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) first American-born player of Chinese-Taiwanese descent, Lin has notched impressive game statistics, sparked new “Lin-go” around his name, and enraptured fans from Queens to the Bay Area, Zhejiang to Taipei, and Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur.
This phenomenon that is “Linsanity” has struck at an interesting time, amidst whispers of a United States in decline and an Asia in ascent. While it is absurd to suggest that one successful Asian-American athlete holds the key to managing international relations, there are certainly lessons to draw from the parable of Jeremy Lin.
Lesson One: Icons Impact International Relations. Few political leaders can fire the mass consciousness, imagination, and emotions of millions across the Asia-Pacific as effectively as Lin did in just under ten games and a few weeks as he rose to fame. Since then his name has been as hotly debated in sports commentaries as in political punditry. The fact that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was visiting the United States just as Lin’s stardom took off made for a creative—if not slightly awkward—juxtaposition of US-China and China-Taiwan cross-strait relations in the media.
If social media is anything to go by, Lin already has a bigger following abroad than he does in the United States. After just five games, Lin’s fan base on China’s most popular microblogging network, Sina Weibo, neared the one million mark compared to just 250,000 Twitter followers and 500,000 fans on Facebook. Asian TV stations scrambled to add Knicks’ games to their schedule and not since Yao Ming has there been such a frenzy for the NBA throughout Asia. From one end of the Pacific to the other, Asians with even a slight affinity for basketball, sports, or simply a feel-good story are swelling with pride at Lin’s new-found, but long deserved, success.
Lin’s popularity parallels that of Taiwan-based American singer-songwriter, Wang Leehom. Fusing Western music with overlays of classical Chinese sounds, Wang’s music is a unique style that blends the sounds of the East and the West. Public approval has been overwhelming. Wang has more than 11 million Chinese followers on Weibo alone, and a larger “Hom-base” of fans spread across China and Southeast Asia than in the United States. How many political leaders can claim that sort of following in their home country, let alone across continents.#
The Lin/Wang effect has been so significant that it deserves its own term: “Icon Diplomacy”.
Lesson Two: Sport and Entertainment Make for Great Diplomacy. Like Lin, sports and the arts have been undervalued and overlooked as tools of diplomatic outreach and soft power. One good example is the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” in US-China rapprochement in the 1970s. Another more recent non-political example is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to North Korea in 2008 that was well received in Pyongyang. For too long such people-to-people interactions have been viewed as intangible, lifestyle pursuits rather than serious foreign policy instruments. Sport is play, music is entertainment, and movies are recreation. The reality is that below the stratosphere of grand strategy, the microcosms of Asia and America are increasingly being interwoven through the interactions of sports, culture, language, and music.
The frenzy that Lin ignited may be temporary but there is long-term capital to be gained by institutionalizing that zeal through international sport camps, clinics, and exchanges. Peace dividends are gained not just through military cuts. They are also gained through US Division I or II collegiate players spending a summer in Southeast Asia coaching aspiring players, and through industry placements in dance companies, recording labels, production companies, or emerging sporting leagues. Unbound by the whims and dregs of politics, it is sports and the creative arts which will catalyze dynamic ways for people to connect and relations to endure.
Lesson Three: Technology Changes
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