To the government's embarrassment, in recent years several model workers have been convicted of stealing public assets. They include a party secretary at a Beijing electronics factory, the deputy manager of a construction company in Hunan province and a transportation department head in Henan province.
In the past, model workers received social benefits such as better housing and a coveted university admission. Now they receive the equivalent of $1,800.
"It comes with perks like high social status and TV appearances," said Zhou, the sociologist. "It's a kind of personal branding."
To give the awards more legitimacy this year, authorities made changes. Capitalists, once seen as oppressors of the people, can now receive the nation's top honor.
So can migrant workers -- the estimated 210 million people who left their rural homes for jobs in China's booming cities.
Migrant workers and entrepreneurs made up a minority of the estimated 2,900 nominees this year.
Aside from Yao, the government offered little information about the nominees. About 80% of them are party members, and half work for state-owned enterprises. About 20% are farmers.
Some observers said Beijing included migrant workers and capitalists to create the impression that it was promoting a more pluralistic society.
"The party is trying to present itself as a party that represents everybody, all social classes without exception," said Robin Munro, research director of China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based group that monitors the treatment of workers in China.
"The government feels it needs celebrity endorsement of someone like Yao Ming to make itself more popular. It's a pointless distraction from the real issues facing China as a whole."
Many migrant workers who toil long hours, receive meager pay and have no elected representatives to negotiate on their behalf say they do not know the criteria for being a model worker.
"What's the point of understanding it? They will never pick one of us," said Wei Yanzhou, 42, a welder from Hubei province who is helping to build what is expected to be the tallest building in Beijing.
Wei works about 12 hours a day, seven days a week for about $100 a month. If he takes a sick day, the boss deducts the day's wage from his pay.
Wei considers himself lucky. Many migrant workers receive no wages at all from employers who claim to be bankrupt or disappear with laborers' hard-earned money.
At the end of the day, workers like Wei are shuttled back to factory dorms where they sleep more than a dozen to a small room. There is no hot running water, no heat or ventilation and little food.
"We eat cabbage three times a day. Sometimes the rice has sand in it," said bricklayer Zhu Zhou, who looks a decade older than his 40 years. "We see meat maybe twice a week. We don't even get enough drinking water, never mind a shower."
The workers say they get no days off, not even during the weeklong May Day celebration.
"They should pick us as model workers," said Fu Xiewen, 31, a carpenter from Anhui province. "Everybody already knows who Yao Ming is. He's a star. We are nobodies.
"We can sure use some improvements in our living conditions."
Times staff writer Jerry Crowe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.