Friendship First

In 1987, my son played base­ball in Bei­jing. The People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na (PRC) invit­ed the U.S. to field Lit­tle League teams to com­pete with Chi­nese kids. Two coach­es put togeth­er a team from Cal­i­for­nia. My son made the ros­ter, and I vol­un­teered to go along as a par­ent-chap­er­one.

When the Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies took con­trol of Chi­na in 1949, Mao Zedong closed the coun­try to out­side influ­ences. It remained closed until the 1970’s, when the PRC began to open China’s doors grad­u­al­ly. One of its pro­grams to pro­mote for­eign exchange was “sports diplo­ma­cy.” The 1987 Bei­jing base­ball tour­na­ment was part of that ongo­ing effort.

Mao Zedong

Mao banned base­ball as an evil West­ern influ­ence and the PRC had res­ur­rect­ed the sport only a few years before the tour­na­ment, so we expect­ed the Chi­nese teams to be green and unskilled. We were wrong. They were stacked with tal­ent­ed, well-coached play­ers. China’s A Team won the tour­na­ment; its B Team was the run­ner-up.

While the PRC was proud of its base­ball teams, the stat­ed goal of its sports diplo­ma­cy pro­gram was “friend­ship first, com­pe­ti­tion sec­ond.” Its pri­ma­ry inter­est in spon­sor­ing the games was to impress its U.S. vis­i­tors with the virtues of Chi­na. To that aim, our hosts gave us Rolls Royce tours of The Great Wall, The For­bid­den City, The Ter­ra Cot­ta War­riors of Xian, and many oth­er sights.

The Great Wall

We were instant celebri­ties every­where we went. Although Chi­na had been par­tial­ly open for a decade, West­ern tourists were still a nov­el­ty in rur­al areas where glee­ful crowds sur­round­ed us, shook our hands, and took pho­tographs with us.

Most of our expe­ri­ences were won­der­ful. I was bowled over by the country’s rich cul­ture, friend­ly peo­ple, and beau­ti­ful scenery, but a dark side of Chi­na also emerged.

My uneasi­ness began with our vis­it to a youth sports train­ing com­plex. Our guide led us into an air­plane-hangar-sized build­ing filled with ping pong tables where kids from ages six to six­teen were all prac­tic­ing the same serve, pound­ing the ball at high speed low across the net with spin. Again and again.

Ter­ra Cot­ta Sculp­tures, 8000 sol­diers, 130 char­i­ots, 670 hors­es

It was a swel­ter­ing day, and the build­ing wasn’t air con­di­tioned. I watched a lit­tle boy drenched in sweat, lis­ten­ing to his coach, adjust­ing his serve, hit­ting the ball, adjust­ing again, try­ing again. He was work­ing hard.

I looked all across the room. I didn’t see any smiles.

We toured train­ing areas for gym­nas­tics, mar­tial arts, and fenc­ing. The sto­ry was always the same. Repet­i­tive drills, focused effort, hard work.

Try­ing Hard

Our guide said scouts select­ed chil­dren for each sport from all over the coun­try and moved them to the com­plex where they trained to make nation­al teams while liv­ing in dor­mi­to­ries onsite. In 1987, the children’s par­ents weren’t moved to Bei­jing with them and many hadn’t seen them for years. (The gov­ern­ment lat­er changed that pol­i­cy to keep fam­i­lies togeth­er.)

Gym­nas­tics Train­ing

The Chi­nese Lit­tle League play­ers lived and trained in this facil­i­ty. In 1980, the PRC had hired Bill Arce, a leg­endary Clare­mont Col­lege coach, to revive base­ball in Chi­na. Arce con­duct­ed clin­ics and trained play­ers in the Bei­jing com­plex. The Chi­nese A and B Teams were a prod­uct of those clin­ics. They were extra­or­di­nary ball play­ers. Every swing of the bat was pic­ture-per­fect. Every pitch hit its mark. Every ball was field­ed flaw­less­ly. But like the ping pong kids, the Chi­nese Lit­tle Lea­guers didn’t smile much.

On the way back to the hotel from the sports com­plex, our bus dri­ver nav­i­gat­ed through a sea of bicy­cles into a busy inter­sec­tion. An oncom­ing bus, try­ing to gain the right-of-way, played chick­en and gen­tly tapped our bumper. Both dri­vers jumped out and got in each other’s faces. The police came and took the oth­er dri­ver away in hand­cuffs. I was sur­prised. The dri­vers had exchanged no blows, and the minor traf­fic acci­dent didn’t seem to be a crime. Lat­er I asked our trans­la­tor, Zhou, what charges the dri­ver would face. “Dis­turb­ing the social order,” he said. Zhou didn’t know, or wouldn’t say, what his pun­ish­ment would be.

Prac­tice Makes Per­fect

At din­ner that night, I asked Zhou about dai­ly life in Chi­na. He said Com­mu­nist Par­ty lead­ers decid­ed where peo­ple lived. The Par­ty had assigned Zhou a one-bed­room apart­ment where his par­ents, his brother’s fam­i­ly, and Zhou’s fam­i­ly all lived togeth­er. He was pleased, he said, that the Par­ty had recent­ly grant­ed their request for an upgrade to a two-bed­room unit. The appli­ca­tion had been pend­ing for four years.

Zhou said the Chi­nese couldn’t trav­el out of their home area with­out the Party’s approval. He didn’t con­sid­er this a trou­ble­some restric­tion because most peo­ple didn’t have a car. In 1987, the Par­ty gave driver’s licens­es and assigned vehi­cles only to those whose jobs required it. The mass­es trav­eled by bicy­cle.

Sea of Bicy­cles

Zhou told me the Par­ty decid­ed all job assign­ments. He had test­ed poor­ly, so the Par­ty made him a secu­ri­ty guard. Zhou had learned Eng­lish in the 1960’s when it was the pri­ma­ry for­eign lan­guage taught in Chi­nese schools. When the gov­ern­ment opened the coun­try, Zhou applied for a job trans­fer to Trans­la­tor based on his pro­fi­cien­cy in Eng­lish, and the Par­ty grant­ed his request.

In 1979, the PRC insti­tut­ed a pol­i­cy that no cou­ple could have more than one child unless the Par­ty grant­ed an excep­tion, which was rare. When I asked Zhou if he agreed with the one-child pol­i­cy, he couldn’t fath­om the ques­tion. The idea of dis­agree­ing with the gov­ern­ment was for­eign to him.

I didn’t sleep much that night.

Near the end of our trip, our hosts took us to Tian­jin, a coastal port on the Bohai Sea, to play a local team. The Tian­jin team wasn’t com­prised of nation­al­ly select­ed play­ers, who lived and breathed base­ball. The game was close, but our team won.

Pro­pa­gan­da Bill­board

After din­ner, we took the boys out­side to work off pent-up ener­gy. Our guide and Zhou, who had always accom­pa­nied us wher­ev­er we went, weren’t in the din­ing room when we left. We only planned to walk around the block, so we didn’t wait for them to return.

In an alley behind the hotel, we mea­sured off fifty yards and paired the kids to run sprints against each oth­er. A small Chi­nese crowd gath­ered as the races start­ed. The Chi­nese cheered the com­peti­tors, laugh­ing and clap­ping. With every race, the crowd grew larg­er and loud­er.

After our coach­es raced to a pho­to-fin­ish, two young Chi­nese men motioned that they want­ed to race each oth­er. We cheered them on. A cou­ple of Chi­nese kids raced next. Then a pair of old­er Chi­nese men.

Tian­jin Back Alley

The crowd grew to more than a hun­dred peo­ple. Chi­nese kids raced our kids. Chi­nese men raced our coach­es and dads. We all yelled and screamed for the run­ners, slap­ping backs, jump­ing up and down, and laugh­ing hys­ter­i­cal­ly. It was great fun.

Until our guide and Zhou showed up with the police. Silence fell over the alley. The police dis­persed the crowd, and we trudged back to the hotel.

Zhou explained that such spon­ta­neous gath­er­ings were not allowed. We had dis­turbed the social order.

We left Chi­na two days lat­er. I didn’t real­ize how the trip had affect­ed me until we got home. When our plane touched down in Los Ange­les, an invis­i­ble weight seemed to lift from my shoul­ders.

I loved Chi­na, espe­cial­ly the Chi­nese peo­ple, but I wasn’t fond of the Par­ty. I haven’t gone back to Chi­na since our trip. As long as the Par­ty is in con­trol, I don’t plan to return.

1989 Tianan­men Square

Post Script: Two years after we left Bei­jing, one mil­lion pro­test­ers demon­strat­ed for demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms in Tianan­men Square, which we had toured on our way to The For­bid­den City. The Par­ty met them with 300,000 troops. They fired on the crowd,

2019 Hong Kong Protests

killing more than a thou­sand peo­ple. Ten thou­sand were arrest­ed. Sev­er­al dozen were exe­cut­ed.

Ten years after we left Bei­jing, the PRC took con­trol of Hong Kong, pre­vi­ous­ly a democ­ra­cy. For the next twen­ty years Hong Kong cit­i­zens peace­ful­ly resist­ed PRC influ­ence over dai­ly life. On June 9 of this year, full-blown protests erupt­ed about an extra­di­tion bill. The police respond­ed with tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets, and arrests. The demon­stra­tions metas­ta­sized. The dis­pute is ongo­ing. It will not end well.

Next Tues­day marks the 70thanniver­sary of the estab­lish­ment of the PRC.