The Georgetown Hoyas came to Beijing for a “China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match.” It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, the Hoyas’ game on Thursday against the Bayi Military Rockets–a professional team made up entirely of People’s Liberation Army soldiers–ended in a vicious, bench-clearing brawl.
The Washington Post notes that “an unidentified Bayi player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen through a partition to the ground before repeatedly punching the sophomore guard while sitting on his chest,” while “Georgetown senior center Henry Sims had a chair tossed at him by an unidentified person.” Check out this picture of a Chinese player stomping a defenseless American collegian lying on the floor. The Post also observes that “the game-ending fracas marked the second time that both benches emptied in a rugged contest marred by fouls, an inordinate number of which went against the Hoyas. By halftime, Bayi had 11 fouls while Georgetown had 28”–which suggests the Chinese referees were hardly impartial.
So the basketball match was symbolic but not in the way sponsors had intended. Instead of symbolizing U.S.-China friendship, it symbolized the growing tensions between the two countries occasioned by China’s increasingly assertive and brutal treatment of its own people as well as its neighbors. Suffice it to say no dictatorship encourages good sportsmanship, and China is no exception: Its government–in common with regimes from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia–tends to see international athletic contests as a way to assert its superiority over competing countries and to tout the advantages of its own political system.
The vulnerability of a system like China’s is that while it does deliver some material goods, it is also deeply illegitimate because it is not founded on the consent of the governed. That lack of democratic accountability means office-holders tend to behave in ways that, when they become public, revolt the population and lead to calls for change. One of the biggest complaints the Chinese people have is about the corruption of their elites–and that, too, was revealed in another bit of unwitting symbolism.
Gary Locke, a Chinese-American former governor, is the incoming U.S. ambassador in Beijing. On his way to his new assignment, he stopped at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport with his son to buy some refreshments. A picture of Locke toting a backpack and paying for his own beverage subsequently appeared on the Internet–and caused a sensation in China where people have a hard time believing a senior official could do such mundane tasks for himself.
In China, where the imperial tradition remains strong, even junior bureaucrats are relieved of such petty annoyances by endless factotums who cater to them as if they were mandarins in the emperor’s court.
These two symbols–one of thuggishness, the other of humility–say much about the state of the two countries today and are worth keeping in mind for the future.