Watching the news on BBC World and CNN, and Yao Ming has just announced his retirement from professional basketball. In case you do not know, Yao Ming is one of China's biggest exports, having played with the Houston Rockets for a decade.
Inevitably, the report claimed that Yao Ming is China's biggest soft power asset, which made me wonder: perhaps the question is no longer what IS soft power, but what ISN'T. The term is fast becoming meaningless because everything is being described as soft power. I have my doubts about the 'soft power' of Yao Ming. Has he made the American public more interested in or sympathetic towards China? Or is he regarded as just a very good Chinese basketball player? Unless we can demonstrate that there is a clear correlation between Yao Ming and a softening in American public opinion towards China, can we really conclude that he exercised soft power? CNN described him as a 'brand', but selling coca-cola does not mean he excercises soft power; he sells a product. I also think it is time for academics, politicians and the media to be more careful in their use of the term. It is not a handy catch-all phrase, but the more it is used in a casual and indiscriminate way, the less value it has as a concept. We misuse it at our peril.