China’s political buzzword over the past decade has been "harmony," but its Army basketball team never got the memo. On the second day of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the visiting Georgetown Hoyas and the Army-affiliated Bayi Rockets played a "friendship match." But the exhibition game was anything but friendly: both sides engaged in aggressive pushing and shouting, until a Chinese player—elbowed in the kidney—yelled insults at the Georgetown coach, it wasn't long after that both sides leaped off their benches and flooded the court. (Watch the video here.) “The last scuffle turned into a brawl very quickly,” says Sarah E. Burton, an American spectator at the game. “It was like they were playing street ball, it was so rough.” For around three minutes of chaos, while the referees looked on, players stomped on each other and threw chairs while the audience lobbed full water bottles and other garbage at the court. Finally, the Hoyas’ coach called his team off the court and the game was declared a tie.
Reactions to the melee in the Chinese blogosphere have been divided between embarrassment and pride. To many Chinese, the incident mars the atmosphere of hospitality that Beijing has been trying to project while Biden is in town. “It’s a major loss of face,” wrote Chinese newspaper editor Zhao Shilong on his microblogging Weibo account. Other bloggers called the Chinese players thugs and hooligans. “Their technique is poor, and their character is poorer!” wrote a user at the Tiexue web portal. Yet some netizens praised the players’ aggressiveness as bravery—often with a whiff of racism. “When…they strike with their black hands, they should be attacked. Don’t they care that Biden is visiting China?” wrote user Duan Duan Cheng on Weibo. Another user posted, “It doesn’t matter that those black people are big and fierce, when it comes to fighting we can kick the shit out of them.” A third blogger over at the Tiexue web portal wrote, “Don’t people fight in the NBA as well?” and called the Georgetown players “foolish [expletive] black people.”
China’s basketball team, like most of its counterparts worldwide, is no stranger to brawling. When China’s team played Brazil last year, a fight erupted “that was actually ruthless” and far worse than yesterday’s fight, wrote Li Shaoyan on a Chinese military message board. Still, the fact that the Georgetown game dovetailed with a high-profile visit by U.S. dignitaries made this brawl more significant. And to some, it paralleled Beijing’s get-tough approach on Washington over the U.S. economy. “Kung Fu Panda has arrived,” wrote one Weibo user.
Before the game, Chinese media had been trying to play up the warm-and-fuzzy symbolism of the exhibition match. The night before the game against Bayi, Georgetown uneventfully defeated a team from Shanxi province and the government mouthpiece, Xinhua, ran an article about how Biden “warmed up” his “basketball diplomacy.” Later, a China Times article published a full 24 hours after the brawl neglected to mention the violence at all, and instead focused on the game as “Oriental-style” diplomacy. Despite these elisions, to Chinese bloggers, the symbolism of the match was uncomfortable. A Weibo user with the screen name "Little Monk of Five Bamboo" summed up things nicely: the basketball teams, he said, “have made things very awkward for their country’s leaders.”