I get media inquiries from time to time, asking my opinion on a variety of subjects. This is flattering, and I usually have something to say if the topic meshes with either my field of expertise (i.e., China foreign investment or intellectual property law) or something I have written about recently. Sometimes I’ll be asked about subjects about which I know little or nothing, like human rights or the law of the sea; when those questions fly at me, I’ll politely beg off and, if I can, refer the person to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Feigned expertise annoys me when others do it and instills feelings of guilt and embarrassment when I engage in the practice myself.
But what makes no sense is to ask the same question to someone who is obviously unqualified, someone who is almost certainly incapable of responding with an informed opinion. That’s what was going through my mind as I read through a Reuters article entitled “China’s Li Na silent over island row.”
China’s Li Na stuck to the business of tennis before her appearance in this week’s Pan Pacific Open in Japan, refusing to comment on a deepening political crisis between the two countries over disputed islands.
Li sat stony-faced at a press gathering on Sunday as an official from the women’s WTA tour said repeatedly last year’s French Open champion would not answer questions on the row.
Apparently the reporters asked her repeatedly to comment on the dispute, and the WTA official stepped in each time to deflect the inquiry. For insulating the players from politics, I say good on the WTA.
I think that there was only one relevant question about all this, which was whether or not Beijing put any pressure on Li to withdraw from the tournament. I wouldn’t expect an answer to that question, but I can at least understand why it would be posed to her, since it dealt with something of which she had direct knowledge. Unfortunately, it sounds like the questions actually asked at this press conference were numerous and addressed the underlying dispute as well.
OK, I get that she is a high-profile Chinese player who happened to be in Japan at the same time that all these anti-Japanese demonstrations were taking place over here. The dispute must have been on everyone’s mind.
But really, why do they bother with this kind of thing? Would anything Li Na says about the dispute really be considered newsworthy?
I think this is just another example of “Let’s ask someone famous about a controversial issue and hope that she says something outrageous. It’s not like we have anything else to talk about.” The fact that Li has a reputation for outspokenness probably encourages this sort of thing. Moreover, sports and nationalism often go hand in hand, so getting a famous athlete to profess an opinion on a sensitive subject like this could be quite sensational, and I use that term in the pejorative sense.
Keep in mind that Li was not inviting these questions. She did not put herself out there as someone with an opinion on the dispute. She was in Japan playing tennis (i.e., her job). Some celebrities have indeed raised their voices, including an infamous Japanese adult movie actor, whose name I won’t use (don’t really want my blog showing up on web searches for that keyword), but not usually to comment on the dispute itself.
This adult movie star (She Who Must Not Be Named), who has a huge following in China, responded to the China-Japan tensions with some weibo posts that promoted good relations and peace. Yes, she injected herself, in a very small way, into the debate, but she certainly didn’t express an opinion on the dispute itself. No surprise, this “news” received coverage from several major media outlets, whose editorial decisions are now apparently being driven by their search engine optimization teams. Call it thehuffingtonization of the news business.
The one thing I’ve learned about the islands dispute is that it’s extremely complicated in terms of history, politics, law and business. There has been tremendous news coverage of the dispute thus far from all of these angles that has drawn on the opinions of very prominent academics.
In other words, I think there are plenty of experts we can turn to without asking athletes what their opinion is.
About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor with an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, a B.A. from Pomona College, and writes at China Hearsay. (EconMatters author archive here)
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