Sports could help mend China-US ties

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/16 15:58:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A WNBA preseason game on May 9 at the Barclays Center in New York attracted much attention. It even got me - who has little interest in sports - to hold my breath, as much for the result as for the reaction from the crowd. 

The crowd was made up of an unusually big proportion of Chinese - Chinese Americans and Chinese nationals living in New York, as well as Chinese diplomats. But they were not there just to cheer for the Chinese national team, which played against New York Liberty. They were also there to watch the WNBA debut of Han Xu, a member of the Chinese national team drafted by Liberty last month.

A top basketball player in China, Han impressed the world in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup last year. She scored 20 points for the Chinese national team against the US national team, which won, 100-88, the narrowest margin ever between the two teams. But now, Han was playing against Team China.

The game ended with the Liberty winning, 89-71, with Han scoring a team-high 19 points. The audience, both Liberty fans and Team China fans, burst into cheers for Han. After the game, Han mingled with her former China teammates in a way long-time friends do at reunions. No trace of competitive animosity could be found in the arena. I was relieved.

The reason I was nervous was that the game, which took place as ties between China and the US deteriorate, could have been taken as a symbol of combat between the two countries. A day later, the trade negotiations between the two countries would wrap up with no agreement. US President Donald Trump would announce higher tariffs on many products from China and China would retaliate by announcing similar measures on American goods.

There could possibly be more talks between the leaders of the two countries soon. But in the US, the general public's concern with the deteriorating ties extends beyond the trade negotiations. A day before the game, the National Committee on US-China Relations and Rhodium Group released a report showing that two-way foreign direct investment (FDI) between China and the US dropped nearly 60 percent in 2018, and China's FDI in the US dropped close to 90 percent.

The report didn't offer a sanguine forecast for the near future. "A 'trade deal' could boost sentiment for two-way investment, but strategic distrust and national security concerns will remain," it said.

In a story in the May 12 issue of The New York Times, Chinese and American scholars shared the same pessimism. "A year-long trade war between the United States and China is proving to be an initial skirmish in an economic conflict that may persist for decades," the story warned in its lead sentence.

With more and more Chinese scientists in the US hurt by espionage suspicions, and US officials publicly calling out the so-called China threat, ordinary people are feeling the heat.

An older generation Chinese immigrant who helped organize a celebration in New York Chinatown after the two countries resumed their diplomatic ties 40 years ago told me this is the worst state of the relations since then. An American-born Chinese activist related her concerns about the possibility of a new Chinese Exclusion Act. Some Chinese students studying science or technology in the US told me they're concerned about their safety if they stay and work in the US after graduating.

Under this backdrop, the game at the Barclays Center was no longer just a game. It provided badly needed hope. 

Sports have played a significant role in the improved ties between the two countries. Diplomatic ties were restored in the 1970s by nothing more than a ping-pong game. But the game Han played was even more encouraging to some extent.

As the first Chinese player drafted by the WNBA since 1997, Han is often compared to Yao Ming, the male Chinese basketball player drafted by the NBA in 2002. But Yao has never played for a US team against a Chinese team.

In another era, Han could easily have become a target for resentment and accusations that she isn't a patriot by her compatriots in China. But fans are clearly more mature now. And in another field, she could easily have been suspected as a spy. But sports seem to be immune from this kind of paranoia. And the fact that the New York Liberty is now owned by Joseph Tsai, a co-founder of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, only reflects the intricate relationships in the sports world that can break down barriers.  

If people of the two countries are wise enough to handle their interaction well in sports, they should be able to handle it well in general.

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow.


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