When China’s table tennis champions protest the system that produces them, it becomes political

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/28 19:36:45

China’s sports system under fire after top players boycott tournament

○ Discussion of the Chinese table tennis team's recent boycott continues on the Internet, with unprecedented outcry and anger towards the nationalized sports system that places collectivism first

○ Table tennis has always been a highly politicized sport in China and the athletes that spoke up about management issues during the incident also benefited from the system 

Liu Guoliang (second from right) stands with national table tennis team athletes at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photo: CFP


Former national table tennis team head coach Liu Guoliang apologized Tuesday night on his Sina Weibo for the country's top-notch tennis players boycotting their matches at the ITTF World Tour Platinum China, the first announcement he made after the most chaotic week the sport has ever seen in China.

The world's three top ranked players - Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin - didn't show up for their matches in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province last Friday. Instead, they wrote the same post on Weibo accompanied by a cartoon of Liu, "At this moment we have no desire to fight … All because we miss you Liu Guoliang!"

Liu said that he didn't know they would quit the tournament but that he had "undeniable responsibility" for it and apologized on behalf of the players he once coached.

Men vs system

Liu was removed from his post as national head coach on June 20 and made vice president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), a role thought to be entirely ceremonial. The Xinhua News Agency reported that the CTTA already has 18 vice presidents.

Two days before Liu's apology, the three players also posted their own letters of apology which read that they weren't fully aware of the content of the table tennis reform plan and the incident "exposed problems in the team's management." Liu also made it clear in his statement that he fully supports the government's reforms and believes they will be a success.

Liu's removal was part of a General Administration of Sport (GAS) management restructuring exercise which aims to improve training and efficiency ahead of the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by simplifying the sports' management systems.

For the national table tennis team, there will be individual coaches for men's and women's teams and the head coach position previously held by Liu will be abolished.

Discussion of this incident is still continuing. The players' decision to support their coach was in turn broadly supported online, turning into unprecedented anger and outcry.

Some pointed out that the public's active involvement in this event shows dissatisfaction in China's sports system that is seen as bureaucratic.  

"Looking at it from a larger picture, [the athletes'] no-show at the matches is out of discontent with bureaucracy. I always vote for fighters to stand up to the system," wrote Yunnan Province-based lawyer Gong Liegang on Weibo.

Bureaucracy or reform?

One aspect of this fiasco that many found particularly puzzling is that the GAS removed Liu from his position suddenly and during a period of success.

Liu led the Chinese men's team to secure a perfect record at last year's Rio Olympic Games. He has also been tireless in his support of grass-roots ping pong among Chinese youth. Several top players in his team have gained millions of followers on social media.

Popular blogger Liushen Leilei said in his commentary on the incident that the system has gone from being a "government-oriented sports system [which people can understand] to a system that people can't understand." He pointed out that given Liu's outstanding performance in bringing home gold medals, there seemed to be no reason to remove him.

Some articles circulated online ascribed his removal to the new chief of GAS. This controversy has also tapped into long-running discontent with administrative interventions in sport.

Former national soccer player Hao Haidong once harshly criticized the sports authorities for hurting the Chinese team's performance by interfering too much in their affairs.

The lack of official transparency about Liu's move has also angered many. Lawyer Hao Jingsong, the founder of the Public Interest Lawyer Center who has a long history of suing government departments, has formally asked GAS to publish information about Liu's removal.

He sent a letter to GAS, urging them to show the public the rational reasons and legal basis for Liu's removal. He said if GAS doesn't respond, he will file a lawsuit. 

Blogger Shouzhuo Shendu said that he can't agree with some Net users using this incident to criticize the country's whole nationalized sports system. He said that without reform and the efforts of leaders, the country wouldn't have developed so well. "We can't use occasional injustices to deny the whole picture."

In other sports programs including basketball, badminton and soccer, reforms are already taking place.


Diplomatic role

Chinese ping pong has long been highly politicized. "Ping pong diplomacy" is probably a phrase known to many around the world, as table tennis was crucial in thawing the Cold War ice between China and the US.

In 1971, Chinese ping pong player Zhuang Zedong talked with American player Glenn Cowan at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan and exchanged gifts. Chairman Mao Zedong decided it was a good opportunity and invited American ping pong team representatives to visit China a few days later.

In April, 1971, 15 American players, officials and their spouses entered the Chinese mainland. They spent 10 days in China, played a series of exhibition games and met with Chinese leaders. Following the trip, in July, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger visited China in secret. The next year, the Chinese government sent its table tennis team to the US for a visit.

In the following two years, China held a series of ping pong competitions, inviting teams from more than 80 countries and regions.

With such a high importance attached to it, ping pong has become known as the national sport. It has connotations of politics, history, nationalism and national interest and is highly popular among the public.

Under China's nationalized sports system, this means reaching the goal by all means, and sometimes even taking extreme measures can be justified. Athletes are asked always to put the glory of the team and the country before that of the individual.

A well-known incident that occurred as a consequence of this collectivist mindset is what happened to He Zhili, a female singles player.

According to the Xinmin Weekly, in order to make sure China won the gold medal at the 39th World Table Tennis Championships in 1987, she was asked by her coach to throw a match against her teammate, because it was believed her teammate stood a better chance of beating foreign players in the next round. This practice of deliberately letting a teammate, and sometimes even opponents, win is considered a common strategy under the nationalized system.

However, He did not obey her coach. She beat her teammate, and went on to defeat her next opponent and took the gold medal that year. But afterwards, her Olympic qualifications were canceled by the Chinese sports authorities and she was put on the bench. She quit the team in 1989 and moved to Japan.

Love-hate relationship

While the recent protest exposed discontent with the nationalized sports system, there is no denying that in ping pong at least, that system has an undeniable record of success.

International table tennis was once dominated by Europe and Japan. However, China has consistently been the world's top table tennis nation since it hit the global stage in the 1980s, with many placing the credit for that on the country's sports system.

From the moment athletes begin their formal training, they are part of the system. According to a commentary article on Xiakedao, the WeChat public account of the People's Daily Overseas Edition, because ping pong is played by so many children, there is a huge talent base from which the authorities can select promising players.

These aspiring players then go through level after level of selection and training which ensures only the best players go from the city to the provincial level before making the national team. The national team's coaches are almost all former international medalists.

Liu Guoliang himself was a gifted ping pong athlete in the 1990s and won virtually every domestic and international award on offer in the sport.

When athletes join the national team, they are thrown into the care of a well-oiled machine.

"Top athletes in China need to train seven hours a day, seven days a week. They only have 12 days of vacation every year. They have special technical, strategy and psychology teams, as well as a large number of training companions. If a top competitor surfaced in Europe, for example, then their training companion will have to imitate the way that competitor plays," the Xiakedao article said.

As of right now, the discussions are still hot on the Internet. But no definite plan on how the boycotting athletes are to be punished and what will become of the situation has yet been revealed.


Newspaper headline: Ping pong politics

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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