Seeing Politics in China’s Ping-Pong Feud

By Leo Timm
Leo Timm
Leo Timm
Leo Timm is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. He covers Chinese politics, culture, and current affairs.
June 28, 2017Updated: June 28, 2017

In an ostensible promotion, the popular coach of China’s most prestigious ping-pong team lost his job to become one of 19 vice-presidents in the national sports administration, a move that has millions of fans in uproar and drawn attention to the role of politics in China’s heavily regulated sports community.  

The affair surrounding coach Liu Guoliang became more pronounced when three players on the team protested his removal by boycotting their second-round matches at the Seamaster 2017 ITTF World Tour China Open in Chengdu on June 23. Their actions met with heavy criticism from the authorities and online discussion of the incident has been censored.    

The three players who staged the boycott and Liu Guoliang have since made similarly worded apologies that many netizens suspect were coerced.

According to various commentary, the personnel changes made under the aegis of China’s State General Administration of Sport demonstrate political feuding ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th National Congress anticipated to be held later this year. The Congress chooses new personnel for the CCP Central Committee of the next five years, and is thus the subject of intense factional maneuvering.  

Ping-pong Politics

Like the former Soviet Union, the Chinese regime takes center field in the athletic sphere. The sports administration has a representative among the Communist Party Central Committee’s alternate members.

Liu was “promoted” to his figurehead post of sports administration vice-chair weeks after his peer, Kong Linghui, had been sacked on charges of gambling. Kong had coached the women’s ping-pong team.

According to RFI of France, both Liu and Kong were close with Cai Zhenhua, the deputy director of the sports administration and a two-time alternate member of the CCP Central Committee. RFI’s report said that Cai, who heads China’s soccer league, was the real target of the ping-pong purges.  

“Taking out Cai Zhenhua naturally means that his associates Kong Linghui and Liu Guoliang must be dealt with as well.”

It’s not immediately clear who would have engineered such a development: sports administration director Gou Zhongwen, who may covet the position of Central Committee member, or higher authorities.

Since coming to power in 2012, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has overseen an enduring anti-corruption campaign that has investigated around one million CCP officials. In particular, cadres associated with former regime leader Jiang Zemin have been widely targeted.