Basketball Diplomacy

By Victor Cha

[Editor’s Note: Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown and holds the CSIS Korea Chair. He traveled as part of the University’s official delegation that accompanied the men’s basketball team to China.]

So, what exactly happened in Beijing?   The Georgetown Hoyas and Bayi Rockets mixed it up on the court, captured on video that went viral around the world.

What the world did not see was the Hoyas’ first game in the Middle Kingdom.   After being mobbed for pictures with smiling Chinese youth as they visited the Great Wall and Forbidden City, the Hoyas played a sedate and friendly match against the Shanxi Brave Dragons. Vice President Joe Biden, traveling to China for meetings with the future leader of China Xi Jinping, dropped by the game upon his arrival in the country, and amiably engaged the Chinese audience at the stadium exchanging jokes and high-fives.  The evening was nothing short of ideal.

Game two was different.  The Bayi Rockets, a professional basketball team sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), played for their country’s honor, and the game was very physical from the start.  The PLA sent a spectator section of soldiers who chanted loud, disciplined cheers every time the Rockets scored. There was some scuffling among players during the game, prompting several technical fouls, and a bizarre moment when one of the Bayi players approached and started yelling at Georgetown Coach John Thompson III for some unknown reason (Thompson ignored it, but Georgetown players became very upset at this).  The foul count was imbalanced (at one point 28 against Georgetown and 11 against Bayi), but other NCAA teams playing in China like Duke experienced similar problems. Unfortunately, that is what you get when you play in China.  Competitive juices got flowing, emotions got high, and things got out of hand.  At the start of the fourth quarter, a sequence of foul-plagued plays involving mad scrambles for loose balls led to the fracas.  The decision was made to pull the Georgetown players off the court and alumni out of the stands onto awaiting buses for safety reasons once the crowd starting throwing debris onto the court in the direction of the players.

Despite the widespread play of the video clips in the US, things calmed down considerably after the event.  No one was seriously hurt. The coaches and player representatives from the two teams were immediately in contact after the incident to express sincere regrets and worked together through the night to find a proper way of reconciling.  The Bayi coach and two players the following morning met Coach Thompson and two of the upperclassmen on the team.  It was a very friendly meeting and they talked about future events where Chinese youth might come to participate in summer basketball clinics in the US.   The two groups exchanged gifts at the end of the meeting and there were no hard feelings on either side.

Whenever an incident like this occurs, the Chinese system is inherently geared to block the rapid passage of bad news up the chain to higher-level decision makers.  Not this time. I think Chinese authorities were especially concerned that the event not be seen as a deterrent for future NCAA teams coming to China to play exhibition games.  The images of US student-athletes from storied institutions like Georgetown being beaten upon by the PLA basketball team does not play well for China’s international image. The video of the incident was quickly censored in China, which arguably indicated embarrassment on the part of Chinese authorities.  Very senior levels of the Chinese government were personally in touch with the university to express regret and concern for any who were hurt.

When the Hoyas moved on to Shanghai, the Chinese audiences were hugely supportive.  Moreover, blogsites were critical of the PLA — things like “the PLA can’t defeat the U.S. so they beat up American college students.” What was really cool was that the NBA stars at the Nike Basketball Festival (where the Hoyas played the rest of their games) — Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Tyson Chandler — went out of their way to come to Georgetown’s games and talk to the Hoya players — a great sign of support for the kids.

Georgetown’s experiences on that one evening are emblematic of the growing pains in US-China relations.  There will inevitably be moments such as these where cultural differences and competition create tensions in our relationship.  As long as both sides reconcile and learn from these incidents, they will be for the betterment of relations between the two people and countries.  That was certainly the experience that these young ballplayers and their Chinese counterparts took away from that game.

Victor Cha is Professor of Government and Asian Studies at Georgetown University and is Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. Dr. Cha is the author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia, 2009).

Victor Cha

Victor Cha

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.