New America Media — A ‘friendly’ basketball game in China between Georgetown University’s team and China’s Bayi team (drawn from the People’s Liberation Army) took a decidedly unfriendly turn this week when the game was ended due to a full-court brawl.
New America Media’s Peter Schurmann interviewed Tom Gold, Professor of Sociology at the University of California Berkeley, to understand the political ramifications of the conflict. Gold has spent the past thirty years writing on developments across the Pacific Rim, including China and Taiwan.
Q: What impact do you see this having on relations between the two countries?
Tom Gold: I don’t see any impact of this brawl in the short term. I think it is symptomatic of a lot of underlying tensions in the relationship, in particular the military ties between the two sides. It is not insignificant that the Chinese team was the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) team. The team’s name “Bayi” means “August 1,” the day of the founding of the PLA, which was commemorated only a few weeks prior to the game.
Also, though this is not an issue in Sino-American relations, I think the racial element cannot be overlooked, though I can’t explain why this factor might have triggered such an outburst. The Bayi team seems to have a reputation as bullies in any event.
Some in the commentariat are equating this outburst to the youth-led movements in the Middle East, London, Israel and so on. Although there is plenty of evidence of dissatisfaction over a broad range of issues among many young people in China, especially the privileged ones who can vent on the Internet, I wouldn’t overemphasize that aspect of this brawl, including the involvement of spectators. It would be hard to decide if they were primarily venting anger at their own elite or thumbing their noses at what they are being told is a declining, but still arrogant power, the U.S.
Q. How do you reconcile images of Joe Biden arriving in Beijing and speaking of a new relationship between the U.S. and China with images of China’s military basketball team and fans attacking American players?
Tom Gold: I think it might be seen as evidence of a struggle within the Chinese elite – both individuals and institutions – over how to move forward in relations with the U.S.
I assume Biden was hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and there are known tensions between Beijing’s diplomatic branch and the military (as in the U.S., I might add.) It is possible that some military folks wanted to embarrass the Foreign Ministry, and possibly Vice President Xi Jinping too, by provoking an incident with an American group, however insignificant a college basketball team might be in the larger scheme of global geopolitics.
There are a lot of issues exacerbating U.S.-China relations these days, most of which have a PLA element, so it is also possible that some in the defense establishment wanted to send a signal to the U.S. that they are a rising power and are not afraid of playing hardball (though that’s another sport!). Issues where the U.S. and China are literally rubbing up against each other that fit into this category include: Taiwan, Japan, the Koreas, South China Sea, and the new Chinese aircraft carrier (launched last week).
Let’s not forget the debt issue where the Chinese really seem to think they are in the catbird seat and don’t want us to forget it.
Q. Is the Chinese leadership unified in its approach to handling relations with the United States?
Tom Gold: No, as I suggested earlier. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to want to keep relations on an even keel while the military appears bent on showing off its new prowess (equipment, ability to project power, alliances around the world) and embarrassing the diplomats. We have seen similar tensions in the U.S. between the State Department and Pentagon – how do you NOT appear soft on a potential foe while also trying to deepen ties which can lead to improved understanding of each other and the emerging rules of the game? Not an easy row to hoe.
You had the Chinese test driving their refurbished Ukrainian aircraft carrier right before the Biden visit, and recall that they suddenly tested a stealth fighter during Secretary of Defense Gates’s final visit. All of these seem to be signals both to the U.S. (and our allies) and other players within the Chinese elite that the PLA must be consulted on issues in international relations, even those which ostensibly do not have a defense component.