US-China ‘goodwill’ basketball match ends in brawl during Joe Biden visit to Beijing

The Telegraph, 19 August 2011

It was billed as a “friendship fixture” – a basketball match in Beijing designed to bolster US-China cross-cultural relations during the visit of American vice-president Joe Biden – but it ended in an unseemly brawl.

While US and Chinese diplomats struggled to find common ground on key issues, from the valuation of the Chinese currency to China’s military rise, it was hoped that a mutual love of basketball, which has an estimated 400 million fans in China, might provide a positive backdrop to an awkward visit.

Unfortunately, the match between Washington’s Georgetown University and a Chinese professional side, the Bayi Military Rockets, managed only to highlight simmering Chinese public antipathy to America, as players punched and kicked each other, with the fighting spilling into the stands.

America has suffered plenty of strident attacks in recent weeks in China’s state-controlled media, both for its fiscal imprudence and Washington’s desire, as Chinese leaders often put it, to “keep China down” and hamper its rise an economic and military superpower.

This month as China conducted sea-trials of its first aircraft carrier, prompting Washington to openly question why China needed to develop such offensive weapons if, as Beijing says, it intends a ‘peaceful rise.’ The Bayi Rockers, a team linked to China’s People’s Liberation Army which draws its players from the forces, is reported to have a history of ‘niggling’ rival teams and has been involved in fights in the past.

As the on-court fighting continued at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, Mr Biden was only a few miles away holding delicate meetings aimed at alleviating Chinese concerns over the long-term value its 1.16 trillion dollars-worth of US Treasuries.
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Diplomats did their best to paper over the cracks – on trade, economy, military and human rights – reporting that a meeting between Mr Biden and his counterpart Xi Jinping had over-ran by 45 minutes, with Mr Xi expressing “confidence” in the US economy.

After the bashing the US had received in the Chinese press for its failure to address debt concerns, Mr Xi struck a conciliatory tone, adding that he felt the US economy was “highly resilient” “We hope that the business people of the two countries will bring forth confidence and work hard to turn challenges into opportunities and embrace change and innovation,” he said.

Reports and pictures from the basketball match, meanwhile, showed an unidentified Bayi player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen to the ground before repeatedly punching the sophomore guard while sitting on his chest. Chairs and water bottles were also thrown as the Georgetown players left the court with about nine-and-a-half minutes remaining in the final quarter.

In an indication of the diplomatic embarrassment, China’s censors did their best to erase any mention of the unsavoury incident from the web, although as always in the age of microblogging, struggled in vain to keep up with the deluge of comments and pictures.

“Bayi basketball team played terribly, but they did at least exert themselves fully when it came to fighting,” said one comment on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, “all the goodwill between USA and China is gone!”

The coach of the US team, John Thompson III, said in a statement on Georgetown website that he “sincerely regretted” the incident, but that the 10-day “China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match” would go on.

“Tonight, two great teams played a very competitive game that unfortunately ended after heated exchanges with both teams,” said Mr Thompson “We remain grateful for the opportunity our student-athletes are having to engage in a sport they love here in China, while strengthening their understanding of a nation we respect and admire at Georgetown University.” Mr Biden’s office declined to comment, as did the China Basketball Association.