Yao Ming, who joined the NBA's Houston Rockets in 2002 and led the Chinese… (Carlos Barria, Reuters )
Reporting from Beijing — Hobbled by leg and foot injuries, Yao Ming surprised no one when he confirmed his retirement from basketball Wednesday in his birthplace of Shanghai to a live global television audience.
Fans across China commemorated the bittersweet news by posting streams of gratitude online and tuning in to a five-hour special on state television lionizing the sports star who brought glory to the nation on and off the court.
"The NBA can survive without Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets can survive without Yao Ming, but we cannot survive without Yao Ming," read a comment on a Chinese Twitter-like tribute page that received 1.5 million entries within hours.
The adulation heaped on the 30-year-old Yao speaks to the power of an athlete whose value at home far transcended basketball. The 7-foot-6 center with an uncanny shooting touch was a sorely needed goodwill ambassador for a country that has often struggled to ease jitters among other countries over its growing economic clout.
Throughout his career, Yao has devoted himself to charity work, including the establishment of the Yao Ming Foundation, which rebuilt schools in China's Sichuan province after the devastating 2008 earthquake and which continues to assist educational efforts in the U.S. and China.
His exit from the foreign stage leaves a void in China's international charm offensive with no obvious replacement.
"Yao Ming is one of the few Chinese faces recognized by American audiences," said Brook Larmer, author of "Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar." "As much as we scoff at sports as just a game, for China it's a crucial part of its soft power diplomacy."
No longer limited to just ping-pong scrimmages and gifts of pandas, China's strategy to curry favor overseas has become big business — and the focus of even more international unease. Billions of dollars have been poured into blockbuster patriotic films, language centers to teach Mandarin, foreign branches of state-run media and a publicity campaign in New York's Times Square.
Some of it has fallen flat, criticized as being inauthentic or failing to achieve its goal of assuaging fears about China's reach.
The Times Square campaign, for example, was launched in January to coincide with President Hu Jintao's U.S. visit and used a short film to showcase notable Chinese. Among them was Yao, who was probably the only personality anyone had ever heard of. Critics said the 60-second ad, which also featured astronauts, supermodels and millionaires, only reinforced the notion that China was on an unstoppable material ascent.
Beijing would love to wield the cachet that American culture commands, but experts say it can't as long as its authoritarian leaders call the shots on how to present its image overseas.
"American soft power is generated by civil society, not government, but China has trouble unleashing civil society from censorship," said Joseph Nye, author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."
By contrast, experts say, the image of Yao smiling sheepishly with his parents the moment the Houston Rockets announced they had taken him first in the 2002 NBA draft after he'd played five years in the Chinese Basketball Assn. introduced the lanky prospect as affable and refreshing in a sport with no shortage of prima donnas.
At the time, Sino-U.S. relations were still bruised by the 1999 American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and the capture of a crippled U.S. spy plane in China in 2001.
Against this backdrop, Yao helped humanize China's image.
"Yao happened to come to the U.S. at exactly the right moment," said Clayton Dube, associate director of USC's U.S.-China Institute. "He won over American basketball fans by being good and then won over a wide swath of the population by being this regular guy who was funny and didn't take himself too seriously."
When Shaquille O'Neal sparked a racially charged controversy by stating he had a message for Yao and then breaking into a "ching chong" schoolyard taunt, Yao responded with diplomatic aplomb.
"There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other," Yao told reporters. "Especially two very large countries. The world is getting smaller, and I think it's important to have a greater understanding of other cultures. I believe Shaquille O'Neal was joking, but I think that a lot of Asian people don't understand that kind of joke."
He then quipped, "Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little."
Advertisers soon seized on Yao's marketability. He pitched Apple computers and starred in a memorable Visa campaign that poked fun at his last name.