From Colin Kaepernick to the Ping-Pong diplomacy of the 1970s, which initiated the diplomatic thaw between China and the United States, politics and sport have always been entangled in both countries.
Nobody could have anticipated, though, that the latest transnational athletics-related entanglement would involve three teenage UCLA basketball players, the inept American president, an outspoken father and the powerful leader of China.
We are all now probably familiar with the saga of LiAngelo Ball’s China misadventure: He, along with fellow freshman players Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, stole high-end goods at a Hangzhou, China, shopping center several days before the third annual Pac-12 China Game between UCLA and Georgia Tech in Shanghai. They were subject to a 20-strong police visit and detention in their hotel that continued until, purportedly, a conversation between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping allowed for the charges to be dropped.
The story reads like a slapstick comedy that seems not at all out of place in a bizarre 2017. Yet much of the commotion about how the players embarrassed the school or how an NBA player’s dad is feuding with the U.S. president ignores a key detail of the story: China and its governance.
The notoriety of the key characters turned the incident into perhaps the biggest UCLA-related story of the year. But the fact it involved criminal detention in an undemocratic state was certainly also relevant. It’s not just about the players; the incident gives global attention to the abnormalcy of legal and administrative norms in China, and how the lure of Asia’s largest economy means athletics organizations such as the Pac-12, the athletic conference UCLA plays in, are willing to ignore the nature of the Chinese government so they can profit.
It’s safe to say many observers did not feel much sympathy for the trio of players and their run-in with the law. It didn’t help that lurid headlines stated the players could receive decade-long prison sentences and that 99.9 percent of defendants in Chinese courts receive convictions appeared almost immediately after the incident came to light.
But anyone who labels themselves a “China watcher” could have asserted that a 10-year sentence was not necessarily looming. A New York Times report said as much, and Fu Hualing, a Hong Kong law professor who spoke with the newspaper, said he “would be surprised if (the players) were even prosecuted.” The Chinese legal and administrative apparatus operates on contingencies, in which officials selectively adapt rules and laws for particular cases, as opposed to strictly and uniformly applying them. In other words, authorities who worked to detain the basketball players would have understood that to actually charge them with a crime, especially a maximum sentence, would result in swift international outrage and attention.
The Chinese government tends to jail its own citizens, rather than foreigners, and particularly not westerners from democratic countries. Human rights activists, lawyers and nongovernmental organization staffers are particularly vulnerable to arbitrary detention and crackdowns. The prominence of individuals, however, is key: A 2016 Wall Street Journal report notes that 0.4 percent of prisoners in China are foreigners, some of whom are being detained indefinitely and without due process.
The incredible popularity of the NBA in China is a probable paradigm for the China game. The Pac-12, the athletic conference that has established partnerships with athletic organizations in China and with e-commerce giant and title sponsor Alibaba, certainly never anticipated such a conversation when it came up with the idea for the overseas game. This was a collaboration that would seem unlikely to cross over to the uncomfortable situation of revealing the Chinese party-state’s authoritarian norms and practices, but the UCLA players gave rise to a worst-case scenario.
Yet the Pac-12 seems to have looked past this quickly, given that it already scheduled next year’s game in China. The business opportunities of playing in China greatly outweigh any concern for the Chinese legal system, which doesn’t appear immediately relevant to a game of basketball in the first place.
American sports leagues and conferences taking their products abroad is hardly an unusual thing. The NFL plays four games in London and another in Mexico. One of college football’s opening day games was played in Australia. Almost always, it is about money. Both professional and collegiate sports organizers want to tap into lucrative global audiences. The Pac-12 is the only college conference choosing to do so in China, though.
China has done a lot in the last three decades to normalize itself in the eyes of a wary global community. It has become an indispensable component of the global economy and adopted international legal norms to facilitate trade. Due to its growing power and economic clout, companies and organizations elsewhere are finding it more comfortable, or even preferable, to do business with Chinese companies, while its government weathers fewer criticisms of the authoritarian party-state or poor human rights record.
When Trump met with Xi earlier this month, he focused the conversation on the non-issue of the trade deficit between the countries and North Korea’s nuclear program, instead of on topics previous presidents raised to the annoyance of Chinese leaders. Even when the UCLA players were brought up at a subsequent meeting, there was no conversation about the legal system. It is not surprising that an athletics organization would likewise avoid politics if at all possible.
Near the end of the telecast of the China game, color commentator Bill Walton spoke effusively about the match and its purpose – how it promotes amicability, cross-cultural understanding and international cooperation. Imagine if the players who will take to the court next year say something about the political system of the country they will be standing in. Something tells me that things wouldn’t be amicable if that happened.