Chinese Superstar Lifts Ivory Cause Onto His Shoulders

Former NBA star Yao Ming is very famous in China, and he's using his fame on behalf of conservation issues. Now a member of China's parliament, Yao is calling for a ban on the sale of ivory in China.

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Chinese leaders and lawmakers are huddled in Beijing for the annual session of parliament, and one man towers above the rest. That's because he's seven feet, six inches tall. The former Houston Rocket center Yao Ming is one of China's best-known athletes. He's also in his second year as a member of China's nominal Upper House of Parliament.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report from Beijing on the former basketball star's foray into law and politics.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At this time every year, the Great Halls of People on Beijing's Tiananmen Square is thronged with minority delegates in colorful costume and apparatchiks in dowdy suits. Yao Ming, meanwhile, shows up to meet the press in a gray tracksuit. He's tabled a motion this year to ban the sale of ivory in China. He proposes a two prong solution.

YAO MING: (Through translator) The first thing is to pass a law making it clear that trading in ivory and ivory products is illegal. The second is to make every consumer understand that purchasing ivory encourages poaching and that when you buy a piece of ivory it's like buying a bullet.

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MING: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: On a trip to Africa, the eight-time NBA All-Star learned about endangered elephants and rhinos. And he made this public service announcement for the environmental group WildAid. Their representative in China, May Mei, says the Yao has worked hard to raise awareness of the issue.

MAY MEI: He feels ashamed of the Chinese because 80 percent of elephant tusks is sold to China market. And he also feels strongly he has a duty to bring the message back to China.

KUHN: Yao is now a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, essentially an advisory body. It's not a full-time politician's job but it does give him a high-profile platform to speak out on a range of issues. Delegate Yao admits he's still learning the ropes.

MING: (Through translator) I'm still pretty green. I'm still exploring how to draft motions. It's not enough just to have an idea, I have to practice getting it through my pen and turning it into something with flesh and bones.

KUHN: A recent WildAid survey shows strong popular support among urban Chinese for a ban on ivory sales. And an ongoing crackdown on government corruption could dampen the traditional enthusiasm for giving ivory products as lavish bribes.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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