A Tale of Two U.S.-China Narratives: Biden vs. the Basketbrawl

Until yesterday, the big China story of the week was U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Beijing. A fight that broke out during last night’s “friendly” game between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets seems to have thrown all the messaging off kilter.

This is all rather unfortunate. U.S. officials had been on a roll with the Chinese media. The new Ambassador, Gary Locke, after being seen at the Seattle airport buying himself and his young daughter coffee (with a coupon!) engendered a great deal of discussion over here. Some of it was amusing: is the U.S. government is such poor financial shape that Locke was forced to buy his own coffee and use a coupon? Other comments were quite positive, noting that Locke, carrying his own bags and travelling just with his family, was clearly a self-effacing kind of public servant whose behaviour should be emulated by Chinese officials.

And then Biden showed up. I personally found the coverage way over the top and mind-numbingly boring, but it is mid-August, and there’s nothing else for the media to talk about except dire financial news, which is a bummer. Besides, given the rhetorical barbs being slung at each other by China and the U.S. over the latter’s debt situation, a feel-good visit was a good way for a mini-reset of diplomatic relations.

For the most part, the visit did feel pretty good. Biden went through the usual round of ceremonies, speeches and events, including another exhibition basketball game that went off without a hitch. A lot of attention was paid to where Biden, Locke and their entourages stopped for lunch.

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker provides some details:

The official delegation filed into none other than Yao Ji Stewed Liver, a family-owned canteen that is, I can attest, the real thing. As a local reviewer puts it, the house soup “is dark and thick, filled with chunks of gritty liver and circles of soft but resistant intestines.” Another option “has chunks of pork intestine and lungs with a slight crunch from the bronchioles, and its taste is somewhere between stinky and pungent.”

Yummy. If there’s one thing we Beijing residents need, it’s more lung tissue. The Xinhua news agency had the rundown on what the U.S. group ordered:

Biden and his staff ordered five bowls of noodles with soybean paste, 10 pork buns, some side dishes and cola for a total cost of 79 yuan (about 12 U.S. dollars).

Some sources say that this place was Ambassador Locke’s choice. If that’s true, then along with that Starbucks coupon incident and this lunch visit, I’m actually starting to think that perhaps the U.S. State Department budget of $47,000 a year is a bit on the low side. (I’m kidding. Step away from the Wikipedia, you don’t need to go there.) Look, 79 RMB for five bowls of noodles, a couple orders of baozi, etc.? For Beijing, that’s damn frugal.

Anyway, all of the happy-happy stuff took a shot to the family jewels last night due to the Basketbrawl:

What began as a goodwill trip to China for the Georgetown men’s basketball team turned violent Thursday night, when its exhibition game against the Bayi Rockets deteriorated into a melee during which players exchanged blows, chairs were thrown and spectators tossed full water bottles as Hoyas players and coaches headed to the locker room at Olympic Sports centre Stadium.

It’s still not clear what started the fracas, although some reports have blamed it on the refs calling the game (typical, blame it on the officials).

I worry that the images of American and Chinese kids throwing punches at each other will get a lot more attention than pics of Biden ordering baozi and pai huanggua. The last thing the two countries need is to reinforce the whole “rivalry” meme.

Then again, the fight might make the next Summer Olympics more interesting.

This post originally contained fun photos. Go to China Hearsay for your viewing pleasure, plus more U.S.-China relations hi-jinks. Also look for me on Google+ and Twitter.