May 28, 2006

Crime, Punishment, and Rural Reeducation

Chen Qi works in the fields surrounding Pan Tao [Xinhua]

It's hard to write about sports in China without sounding ignorant. I'm going to try it anyway.

Last week I read this story about Olympic table tennis champion Chen Qi, who was sent to the countryside for "rural reeducation:"

After losing to compatriot Wang Ha in the men's final at the Asia Cup held in Japan on March 5, Chen flung the ball to the ground and kicked a chair into the air. The unsportsmanlike act earned Chen a "list" of penalties from team mates, the Beijing Times said. He can now add "levelling dirt … weeding and plucking cucumbers," as part of his rehabilitation, which has also involved heavy fines, a lengthy benching and a televised public apology. Chen is expected to spend a week in the fields …

Now here's where I start to sound ignorant, because there is obviously a cultural divide here that I am never going to be able to bridge. But this whole story is a mystery to me.

Chen's crime, according to all the stories, was acting upset after a loss — which happened to be at the hands of a Chinese teammate. I dislike poor sportsmanship as much as the next guy, but that's pretty mild.

But assuming the relevent "authorities" believe that Chen needs to be punished, why do his teammates get to choose the punishment? Remember, table tennis is an individual sport (or a nearly-individual sport, in doubles), so Chen's "teammates" on the Chinese national team are also his competitors. Are they more likely to try to, um, reeducate Chen, or destroy him?

Then I look at the list of punishments, and I scratch my head again. Chen, according to several stories, was docked ten percent of his salary for the year; made a "humiliating" apology on national television; was sent to People's Liberation Army boot camp; and now, sentenced to a week's hard labour in the fields while wearing his national team jersey.

Hey Chen Qi, think you're somebody special? Think again. This isn't even like a parent disciplining a child — it's like a bad teen movie. "You embarassed me — so now I'm gonna embarrass you." It looks even more shallow when I read that the "discipline" was interrupted to allow Chen to compete at the World Championships!

The chain of punishments was suspended as Chen Qi helped the Chinese team defend the world team championship in Bremen, Germany, early this May and team discipline was resumed once he returned.

Chen, of course, has no choice but to act contrite, if he wants to play table tennis again. He came out of the last stage saying "I am truly sorry for my action. I should never disgrace the Chinese team." Yeah Chen, try not to make them look bad.

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