August 23, 2011 11:35 pm

America fears the great brawl of China

A ‘goodwill’ basketball game between China and the US ended in chaos, writes Jamil Anderlini

So much for ping-pong diplomacy. In what has been dubbed the “Great Brawl of China” a college basketball team from Georgetown University in Washington got into a chair-throwing fisticuffs session with a Chinese team in Beijing last week.

The “goodwill” exhibition game ended in chaos in the fourth quarter as both benches and a few spectators joined in the fray, forcing the Americans to beat a hasty retreat to their team bus as they were pelted with rubbish and plastic bottles. Unfortunately for vice-president Joe Biden, the dust-up also rather overshadowed his state visit to Beijing last week.

Before they left for China, the Georgetown Hoyas were briefed by the US state department on their roles as ambassador, while their 10-day trip was cited as an example of “sports diplomacy”. Sadly, it seems nobody held a similar briefing for the Chinese side. This might have been wise – the Bayi Rockets, a professional team whose players are drawn from the People’s Liberation Army, are known in China for their unofficial slogan: “When Bayi can’t put up the shots then they put up their fists.”

Thompson cartoon

The game was confrontational from the start, but when it became obvious that the mid-ranking US college team were going to handily outplay the older professionals the hometown referees started calling fouls on the Americans on almost every play. The brawl then apparently began when one of the smallest members of the US team reacted with a light shove, after a particularly hard foul from one of the largest Chinese players.

The Bayi player responded by pummelling the Georgetown man to the ground, where he was joined by his teammates armed with chairs. In one of the most evocative photos from the melee two uniformed Bayi players, along with a Chinese man with absurdly muscly legs wearing civilian clothes, are seen stomping on a Georgetown player, who cowers on the ground while one of his teammates looks on in horror.

The photograph (along with all references to the brawl itself) were quickly deleted by Chinese internet censors, but not before some sardonic Chinese netizens had posted comments to this effect: there they go again, those PLA boys stomping on innocent students. A quick search of YouTube, which is blocked in China, also throws up at least two other recent occasions when Chinese basketball or soccer teams have let fly with their fists and boots during international “friendly” matches.

China is spending billions on trying to convince the world it’s not a potential military threat. Perhaps Beijing needs to start by teaching its sports teams a bit of sportsmanship. Even so, the match threw up an uncanny coincidence. The final score was 64-64. This tally reads in Chinese like “June 4, June 4”, which, it turns out, just happens to be the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Perhaps Georgetown had the last laugh after all?

Biden silenced

While their m ilitary brothers were preparing to brawl on the basketball court, Chinese security agents were warming up as Mr Biden met Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, in the Great Hall of the People. The targets this time were the foreign press, who were ushered into a room to hear remarks from the two VPs. The famously long-winded Mr Biden had been speaking for less than five minutes when Chinese security staff and officials began pushing the reporters out of the room, yelling “it’s over, it’s over, let’s go”. When White House and US embassy staff tried to intervene, they were pushed and shoved as hard as the reporters. It seems it’s not just Chinese sports diplomacy that needs polishing.

We all love a riot

Speaking of scenes of mayhem, Britain’s image has taken a terrible beating in the eyes of many Chinese following the scenes that engulfed the country two weeks ago. The UK is meant to be a country of civilised gentlemen in bowler hats, or grandmotherly matrons waving from palatial balconies. So scenes on state television of men in hooded sweatshirts looting and burning down buildings on the streets of London came as an understandable shock. The Chinese media, of course, are banned from reporting on any of the estimated 180,000 riots, strikes and protests that break out in China each year, which may explain why they reported the British troubles with such gusto. Either that or some of China’s sports team scouts were on the lookout for fresh talent.

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