TAIPEI – New NBA sensation Jeremy Lin has sparked a war of words between Taiwan and China as the rivals seek to lay claim to being the New York Knicks player’s true ancestral homeland.
US-born Lin, whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants, has been hailed as “the glory of Taiwan” and inspired a feverish following on the island after coming off the bench and powering the Knicks to a stunning run of triumphs this month.
His fans in Taiwan range from President Ma Ying-jeou to teenagers rushing to get a Lin haircut. The Taiwan sports lottery has seen brisk sales as buyers place record bets on matches featuring him.
“It’s humbling, a privilege, and an honour. I’m really proud of being Chinese, I’m really proud of my parents being from Taiwan,” Lin said in a recent interview.
But there are also many across the Taiwan Strait who want to claim Lin as their own. His maternal grandmother is from the mainland, and there are even outlandish calls for him to represent China in the upcoming Olympics.
“Lin is virtually a household name in China, like Yao Ming, and there is wave after wave of calls for him to join the Chinese basketball team in the London Olympics,” said the state news agency Xinhua.
Yao, China’s first global sporting icon, joined the Houston Rockets in 2002 as the first player from outside the United States to be selected as the top NBA draft choice.
“Lin is making our China look good,” read one message on China’s popular microblog Sina Weibo.
“Lin is a legend in my family, even my mother who didn’t watch sport before now really likes him because he is Chinese and he can score,” said another.
Xinhua, which said Lin’s ancestors hail from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, noted that he would have to renounce his US citizenship in order to play for China.
“How to turn the calls into reality would require the Chinese basketball association to make concrete efforts to attract talent and Lin to (show) determination and seize the opportunity,” Xinhua said.
Lin’s family in Taiwan, however, beg to differ.
“He is Taiwanese, a true Taiwanese and some remarks (that he is not) are wrong,” Lin’s paternal grandmother Lin Chu A-muen told reporters in Taiwan.
His uncle Lin Heng-cheng told Agence France-Presse: “We are very happy and very proud of him. He is Taiwanese and his grandmother and many relatives live in Taiwan. These are indisputable facts.”
Taiwan, which is officially recognised by only 23 countries, has struggled to emerge from the shadow of its giant neighbour China ever since their split in 1949 after a civil war.
“Since Lin’s grandma and uncle all stress that their whole family including him are Taiwanese, isn’t anyone who deliberately says he is not sick?” said a message posted on Taiwan’s United Daily News online forum.
The Lin phenomenon taps into a deeper yearning among Taiwanese.
The island, which lags behind China in political and military clout, has anxiously looked to talents with Taiwanese roots in the fields of sports, entertainment and arts to help boost its international profile.
Oscar-winning film director Ang Lee and fashion designer Jason Wu, both born in Taiwan and based in the United States, are also dubbed the “glory of Taiwan” for their professional achievements.
“The ‘Lin-sanity’ in Taiwan reflects Taiwan’s insecurity and lack of confidence due to its long-time isolation in the international community,” said George Tsai, a political analyst at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
“Taiwan needs a hero and an icon and wants to think Lin as one of us, to share in his pride and fame. But he is more American than Taiwanese and there is no need to label him,” Tsai said.
The mass-circulation Apple Daily newspaper said the public had every right to be proud of Lin’s Taiwanese ancestry and while it was “annoying” that China claimed him as its own, mainlanders were also right to admire him.
But it stressed: “We should not force him to identify himself as Taiwanese or Chinese, as his nationality is American and he is an American.”
And not everyone in China itself agrees with the attempts to adopt Lin as truly Chinese.
“I think Lin is an American and has nothing to do with China. It’s funny and ironic to claim that he is winning glory for China,” said another message on Sina Weibo.