The Yao Ming economy.

The light that burns twice as bright …

During the run-up to the Beijing Olympics (2008), several US sportswriters noted that Yao’s patriotic decision to lead the national China team while still playing a regular NBA season would probably shorten the injury-prone center’s career. Now that the 30-year-old Yao is recovering from yet another stress fracture in his left ankle, his return to the game seems highly questionable.

Yao’s career was indeed a glorious one. He was beloved at home in China and admired both in the US and around the world. But some of the superlatives heaped upon him during his heyday – that he would change the game forever, deliver the NBA to China and open a floodgate of Chinese talent that would redefine the future of pro ball – just look silly in retrospect. He was a superb athlete, a hard worker and a helluva good guy. But he also pushed himself too far, spread his talents too thin, and ignored his own limits.

Sound familiar? China’s economy is starting to show signs of stress – inflation is raging, resources are running low and the income gap between rich and poor is becoming difficult to reconcile with socialist principle. Instead of embarking on a path of moderation and serious rehabilitation, Beijing seems to be taping up and running even harder. Yes, it is tinkering with interest rates and instituting new policies every week.  But Beijing is micro-managing economic decision-making, the army is scarier than ever, corruption is becoming more obvious , and mercantilist practices are intensifying.

China-watchers are starting to pepper economic forecasts with warnings and even the occasional suggestion – once considered ludicrous – that growth may have limits. The big question for 2011 will not be whether or not China Inc. stumbles – but if it has the ability to pick itself up and get back to full strength.

Superstars get used to hearing the roar of the crowd. China Inc. has 1.3 billion ecstatic fans with high expectations and little tolerance for failure.  But without a break and little rehab, the Chinese economy could end up benched.

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