Tea Leaf Nation

Crawl for the Cause

A Chinese professor bet that officials would disclose their assets -- then lost.

On any other day, Chinese scholar Fan Zhongxin might have been standing before his students in a lecture hall, but on Jan. 1, he found himself outside on his hands and knees. The professor of legal history at Hangzhou Normal University in eastern China had lost a bet, made one year prior, that Chinese authorities would require most village- and town-level officials to disclose their financial assets before the end of 2013. Advocates have argued that compelling officials (and perhaps their families) to make their income and holdings public could help curb government corruption.

Fan had publicly wagered that the Chinese government would agree, and within the calendar year. "If I lose, it means I'm not even as smart as a dog," he wrote on Jan. 1, 2013, "And I will punish myself by crawling" for about half a mile.

On the first day of 2014, Fan followed through on his promise, bringing renewed attention to the lack of transparency within government ranks. He uploaded to Weibo, China's Twitter, video footage of a lakeside trek that occupied "almost two hours" and left his palms and knees bloody. Many prominent domestic papers picked up the story, and on Jan. 7, video site Youku promoted a version of the clip, which then received over 2 million views in one day. Commenters applauded Fan for publishing it. "I'd like to express my great respect for Professor Fan," wrote one anonymous Weibo user. "Although he was crawling on his knees, he was standing tall in his heart."

Over the past several years, as Chinese Internet users have posted images of bureaucrats wearing luxury watches, smoking expensive cigarettes, or finding themselves caught in flagrante with mistresses, public mistrust of government has deepened. Demands for a more systematic method of public supervision have shown up in online and offline protests. In December 2012, 65 activists, scholars, and lawyers signed an open letter to top leaders calling for official asset disclosure, and in April 2013, activists organized a protest in southern Jiangxi province demanding something similar, which landed three participants in jail.

The ruling Communist Party did not appear pleased with what an op-ed in party-run Global Times called Fan's "performance art," which it declared "not very constructive." State-controlled Xi'an Daily questioned whether it was "appropriate" for a legal scholar to "use such a primitive method" to express views on a serious subject.

In response to allegations of showmanship, Fan told the influential Beijing Youth Daily, "I was only keeping my promise." In the interview, Fan insisted he remained optimistic that asset disclosure would eventually become law -- just not this year. When asked on Weibo whether he would renew his bet in 2014, Fan replied: "Thanks but no thanks," adding, "I have given up gambling."

Weibo/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Shaq in China: A Love Story

A translator for the NBA star explains his cross-border appeal.

At 7-foot-1, roughly 350 pounds, and with a smile that's been featured on everything from cereal boxes to CD album covers, Shaquille O'Neal isn't particularly hard to recognize. And yet there I stood at the airport arrival gate in Chongqing, a city of 30 million people in southwestern China, holding a placard that carefully read "Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal" -- as if I might mistake this Shaquille O'Neal, the iconic NBA superstar that I grew up idolizing, with some other Shaquille O'Neal.

A Chinese real estate company called MyTown had lured Shaq to Chongqing -- along with former NBA point guard Jason "White Chocolate" Williams -- for a two-day publicity visit and exhibition game against a local Chinese professional team. The company had hired me to be Shaq's translator. 

My first instructions from the Chinese bosses were straightforward: 1) find Shaq when he got off the plane; 2) hand him a bouquet of roses so large that I could barely hold them. When Shaq arrived, his posse walking closely behind, I tried to present him with the portable garden I was carrying. "You got a girlfriend?" were his first words, asked in his famous, woofer-rattling monotone. "No," I responded. 

"Good. Then you'll need these more than I do." 

The main event was a basketball game in Chongqing's largest professional sports arena. I arrived early with Shaq and his crew, including his security chief, Jerome Cohen, and his agent, Perry Rogers. Together, we polished off six medium pizzas from Pizza Hut. I did not see Shaq so much as sample a single Chinese dish during his visit, though he did repeatedly ask me if I could find him a restaurant that served dog. Shaq's other odd requests included going to a hookah bar and finding high-quality, knock-off women's bags. (That said, he has a good poker face and I was never sure whether he was joking.)

Before the game started, I rebounded for Shaq as he heaved dozens of three-point shots. He only hit one three-pointer out of 22 attempts over a 19-year career, but somehow connected on roughly 50 percent of the three-pointers he took in Chongqing. His trick: yelling "Danny Green" -- channeling the young, San Antonio Spurs sharp shooter -- while releasing the ball. 

The game itself was boring: A hodgepodge of American Division I college players and NBA washouts handily defeated the local Chongqing professional team, with Jason Williams dishing his signature behind-the-back, off-the-elbow passes and Shaq sitting on the sidelines in a crisp, quintuple extra-large white t-shirt, doing his best to resemble a coach. Despite not breaking a sweat, Shaq found himself the clear focus of the Chinese crowd. "Ao-ni-er, wo ai ni!" they cried. "O'Neal, I love you!" 

As the game wound down, one screaming fan's voice rose above the rest, carrying a pang of desperation. "Ao-ni-er! Look at me! Look at me!" I turned my head to locate the fan, who sat several rows behind the coaches, dressed in full Shaq regalia. Shaq himself also looked back. I was surprised to see a flicker of recognition in his eyes. 

That crazed fan's name is Wang "Rashaun" Liang -- the middle name is no coincidence. He was born in Anqiu, a small, obscure town in China's Shandong province, the son of a government worker and a nurse. He was passionate about basketball at an early age, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that the NBA made its first footprint in China, when new NBA commissioner David Stern -- in an early effort to increase the NBA's global reach -- offered to snail-mail one free NBA video segment per week to be broadcast on CCTV, China's state-run television service. "Everyone was obsessed with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but Ao-ni-er caught my eye -- it was love at first sight," Wang told me at a Beijing café. "Every week, I would wait for that game to be broadcast, crossing my fingers that I could see Shaq, my hero."

By the time Wang reached college in 2003, CCTV had started airing more games, and Wang sought to improve his English so that he could keep closer tabs on his idol. Despite being nearly broke during his senior year, Wang finagled a nosebleed seat to watch Shaq play in an exhibition game in Beijing, an experience that to this day makes him tremble with excitement. When he got his first job, Wang devoted entire paychecks to buying Shaq-related apparel, mostly jerseys and shoes. Today, he boasts a collection of 34 Shaq jerseys, many of them in the star's actual size, as well as a pair of Reebok sneakers -- size 23, U.S. -- once worn by Shaq himself. (Wang Liang is 5-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds, about half of O'Neal's body weight.) 

It should not come as a surprise that fans like Wang exist. Basketball has grown exponentially in China -- around 300 million Chinese people now play it -- and Shaq, an adept marketer, has never been one to pass up the opportunity to sell himself. (With a straight face, he once told reporters: "I'm tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.") In 2006, late in his career, Shaq landed a lucrative endorsement deal from Lining, one of the largest Chinese sporting companies; during the 2008 Olympics, the company erected a 50-foot statue of the basketball superstar in a Beijing park. 

Watching Shaq in action, it wasn't hard to understand why China has treated him so well. He seemed to have the country down to a science: With his expressive body language and infectious charm, it was as if he barely needed my services as translator. He knew exactly when to sign basketballs, whose hand to shake, and whom to flatter. He even grasped some basic Mandarin, rattling off phrases to his fawning fans. 

Chinese fans often invent their own, alternative nicknames for favorite NBA players. For example, former San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan, renowned for his stoic game-time demeanor, is called shifou, or "Stone Buddha." Besides Ao-ni-er, which is simply a phonetic translation of his last name, Shaq has two other popular Chinese monikers: Da-sha-yu, or "Big Shark," and Ao-pang, which roughly translates as "O'Fatty."

I told Shaq about his first two nicknames (diplomatically withholding the third), and within minutes he was mouthing his Chinese name to himself, trying to remember it. "Yo, Perry!" he yelled across a room to his sports agent. "You know they call me 'Big Shark' here?"

After shouting himself hoarse at the Chongqing basketball game, Wang Liang finally got his wish: He met the Big Shark. Since first seeing Shaq in person in 2006, Wang had followed Shaq around on all of his China tours, intercepting him in Beijing in 2009 and then again at a small-scale private event in Changsha, a city in southern China. Wang didn't hear about Shaq's most recent visit until the day before the mega-star arrived, but the next morning Wang was on a flight to Chongqing, skipping work and flying nearly 1,500 miles in hopes of seeing his hero. 

Despite the chaos of the Chongqing arena, Shaq recognized Wang immediately and waved him past the security guards. The two exchanged a warm hug, Wang's head squeezing into Shaq's abdomen. With the help of my translation, Wang made a special request of Shaq.

"This is your biggest fan in China, Rashaun Wang, the man you see every time you visit," he said, staring at me intently as I translated. "I am hoping to marry my girlfriend soon, but I need your help. You and she are the two most important people in my life. Will you help me?" With the grace of a seasoned actor, Shaq picked up Wang's script and took the recording smartphone from Wang's trembling, outstretched hand. "Do you, Liao Binbin, take Wang Liang to be your husband?" he recited into the device. 

The wedding is set for early 2014, and Wang already knows who he wants to be best man.

ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images