Sports magazines have breathlessly hailed his “special characteristics”; learned analysts have spoken in awed tones about the “athleticism of his genes” and some have praised the “whiteness and size” of his teeth.
At its core, though, the source of all the excitement is simple: Ding Hui, the latest addition to China’s fiercely competitive national volleyball squad, is black.
His father is South African and his mother Chinese and he was brought up in the east coast industrial city of Hangzhou. The 19-year-old may be mixed-race but is still, according to participants in an online sports chat room yesterday, “exactly as black” as President Obama.
The prodigiously talented defender is expected to be at the heart of China’s quest for gold at the London Olympics in 2012. He is already a central figure in the provincial team of Zhejiang and represented China in the youth squad five years ago.
However, Ding’s prominence presents a challenge to many in a country where the word “foreigner” tends to conjure the image of a Caucasian and where “black” can be greeted with suspicion.
“Chinese views towards black people are not sophisticated, partly because it is not very common to see any in the cities and even less in the country,” a group of Beijing residents told The Times. “A lot of people will be very curious about Ding, and will be positive towards this decision to have him on the team. On the other hand, there are still plenty of Chinese who, unfortunately, think of black people as somewhat barbarous or automatically assume they are involved in crime.” The Government insists that racism does not exist in China but some commentators remain sceptical. Beijing’s energetic investments in Africa–many centred on the supply of oil from Angola and other big regional producers–is the culmination of many decades of strong Sino-African relations. China was never involved in the black slave trade, which has eased its dealings on the continent and allowed it to talk, during the Cold War, of a “Third World coalition”.
However, the treatment of black students has not been without controversy and African and Chinese students clashed violently in the 1980s. There are suggestions, too, that black people living in Beijing were the target of a pre-Olympic police crackdown last summer.
Attempts to herald the arrival of Ding in the national squad have revealed a definite gaucheness. One of China’s biggest internet portals described him thus: “Black skin, thick lips and big white teeth are his main characteristics,” it read, adding that “due to the special characteristics of his bloodline Ding Hui is blessed with pliability, toughness and agility”.