Changing China

Giant on the move

China hits home run

March 13, 2009

China’s upset 4-1 win over Taiwan in the first round of the World Baseball Classic earlier this month was a small but important step for a team that battles for recognition and funding.

Although trounced by Japan and South Korea in earlier matches, the politically tinged match renewed China’s bragging rights over the self-ruled island, which Beijing declares as its own territory and has vowed to bring back to mainland rule, by force if necessary.

The loss was a bitter pill for Taiwan to swallow, which was also beaten by China at the Olympic Games, and has a far deeper baseball following stemming from U.S. aid and soft power flowing into the island in the decades after the Chinese civil war (1945-1949).

“We have to accept it, and the fact that China have made great steps in baseball,” said Taiwan coach Yeh Chih-Shien.

It was also a surprise for me, having already consigned Chinese baseball to the waste-heap of history, after it emerged in January that a local developer had started to dismantle Beijing’s Olympic baseball venue with a view to replacing it with a shopping mall.

The win over Taiwan aside, China finished eighth out of eight at the Olympic Games.

Baseball, like softball, has been trimmed from the Olympic line-up and won’t be played at the 2012 London Games. It will have to fight for inclusion at the 2016 Games against other hopeful sports, including squash, rugby, golf and karate.

This bodes ill for the game’s development in China, where government funding is almost exclusively channeled into a rigid state-run sports system charged with producing champions for international competitions.

Still, there’s nothing like a good dose of patriotism to help open up the government coffers.

The idea of its national team getting smacked around the Olympic stadium in front of home fans by the world’s seven best teams stung sport officials into action after Beijing won the bid in 2001. A professional league was set up quickly, and money was thrown at American coaches and trainers to hone China’s top players into a team. Those players were also flown across Asia for bruising encounters against better teams at international tournaments.

Although China got creamed at the Games, victories on the international stage are looked upon favourably by government sporting mandarins. There’s nothing like jingoism to open up government coffers, and China’s bitter rivalry with neighbours South Korea and Japan might just see it try to make more inroads on the world stage. 

Still, the game’s local custodians face an uphill battle to build a following for the sport. Only a few dozen fans generally turn up to matches for the local professional league, and the game remains all but a mystery to the man on the street.

It’s still not clear whether a seed was planted at the Olympic baseball venue among the few thousand Chinese who saw their team get walloped. While they enjoyed top quality sport, they were also told to pay close attention to the play, lest a fly ball pop them in the eye when they weren’t looking.

Photo caption: China’s infielder Hou Fenglian (L) slides home safely while Taiwan’s catcher Kao Chih-kang looks on in the first inning during the World Baseball Classic (WBC) Tokyo round in Tokyo Dome March 7, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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