Why even Yao Ming’s star power won’t convince Hong Kong kids to celebrate handover’s 20th anniversary

The basketball superstar is hosting a game as part of the wildly disparate ‘celebration’ events, but ‘togetherness, opportunity and progress’ is something the city’s youngsters feel sorely lacking in their lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 1:20pm

Yao Ming is used to overcoming challenges.

He arrived in Texas speaking little English and wildly off the pace in the National Basketball Association, but became the first Chinese star player, winning a place in the Hall of Fame, as well as a charming personality in his second language.

He’s fronted campaigns to persuade Chinese to stop ravaging wildlife: sales of shark fin have supposedly gone down as much as 70 per cent, and China has banned the ivory trade after a proposal he made as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress.

He’s just taken on another thankless task, becoming president of the Chinese Basketball Association, and you wouldn’t bet against him dragging it into modernity (although it’s proving tricky thus far).

But now Yao’s embarking on a mission surely impossible even for him: helping to mend the divisions between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The former Houston Rockets star was in town this week to confirm the SCMP’s news from last month that he would lead an exhibition game to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong back to the motherland.

The match, on July 30 at the Hong Kong Coliseum, will feature stars from the NBA and CBA and some local players to spread the message of the handover ‘celebrations’, which is officially “Together, Progress, Opportunity”.

In fairness, it’s just one of hundreds of wildly disparate events in Hong Kong and elsewhere, including several other sports contests, that have been lumped together under the celebration banner, so we probably shouldn’t expect Yao’s match to solve 20 years of hurt on its own.

The press announcement (at a restaurant that serves shark fin, by the way Ming) was attended by the head of NBA China, David Shoemaker, Hong Kong sports commissioner Yeung Tak-keung and representatives from South China Athletic Association, which will host the event.

There was no Q&A session, so more detail on the possible benefits of the game in bringing harmony to Hong Kong through basketball was not available.

The idea came from the Hong Kong government, said South China chairman Andy Lo Yun-sum. Any profit from the game, which will reportedly cost HK$30 million to host, will go to charity. As for possibly mending tensions, Lo said that “as a sportsperson, I don’t get involved in politics”.

But of course, given the growing pessimism among Hong Kong youth about the city’s future and threats from Beijing that ‘one country, two systems’ could be scrapped, everything involving the anniversary is fraught with politics.

The government is explicit in focusing the ‘celebrations’ on young people, even though ‘togetherness, progress and opportunity’ seem to be three concepts most of them feel denied.

Taxpayers will stump up some HK$640 million on everything from exhibitions “Celebrating Imperial Birthdays in the Qing Dynasty” to a “Stargaze Camp for All and the Blind”, and a doubtless engrossing Belt and Road Summit.

With the 20th anniversary celebrations costing almost 10 times the 10th, it’s almost as if the government is trying to over-compensate for something.

Brand-new water cannons, anti-terror drills, aircraft control-jamming security vans and 10,000 police will also be part of the fun, just in case the message of “fostering community spirit and social cohesion” and pride in being reunited with the motherland, as chief secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung puts it, doesn’t quite take hold.

Back at the Hong Kong Coliseum, you’d think tight security might also be required: the game will be broadcast on state television in the mainland, so the opportunities for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people in the fashion we’ve seen at Mong Kok Stadium – waving colonial flags, booing the national anthem etc – are rife.

And early plans are apparently for the NBA players to take on their CBA rivals – just how loud would the cheers be if the Americans hammer China?

So sorry Yao – the city’s basketball-mad youth will relish the opportunity to see some top players in action but even your star power is unlikely to convince many of them to embrace the motherland.