Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.10.16

Giant China and New Rules

I enjoyed watching the London Olympic Games on television very much, but one thing bothered me - there were so many competitive "Chinese" table tennis players. I am not referring to players representing China, but, rather, Chinese players who represent countries other than China but were trained in China. Table tennis is very popular in China and the number of players there is large. Many of these are world class but only a limited number of them actually can represent China at international games. So, those who do not make the cut move to other countries and become naturalized. These include both players who themselves want to play at the international level and fine players who are invited by countries to represent them at the games.

For more than ten years, the number of these "Chinese" players in international competitions has increased. It is not surprising that Chinese players represent not only mainland China, but also Hong Kong and Singapore; however, they also represent many countries in Europe. These include the countries of Scandinavia, which have a strong table tennis tradition, as well as Poland and the Netherlands. At one point, even Japan had naturalized Chinese players as representatives. As a result of there being so many Chinese players, international games have been mocked as a "Chinese" competition. I would like to point out that Japanese and Korean players are just as competitive as the Chinese, but I nonetheless can understand this mockery. My discomfort in watching the Olympic Games was because so many Chinese players were representing European countries.

Although the number of Chinese players playing in international competition is restricted , there still are many. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has established new player eligibility rules for World Title events after September 1, 2008. The IITF will not permit registration of a player 21 years of age or older to represent a new national association at World Title events. In addition, those younger than 21 years of age must wait a certain period after registration before representing a new national association. The younger the player, the shorter this waiting period.

The effect of these rules is that Chinese players cannot suddenly become naturalized for the purpose of representing another country; only "real" citizens can represent that country. This is similar to the local content rules for purposes of trade. A product cannot be labeled as "Made in Country A" merely based on its having been completed in Country A. Instead, for it to be properly labeled as "Made in Country A," it has to include a certain percentage of Country A content. In the case of table tennis, training in the country in which the player is naturalized is considered a form of "local content." The local content for a player naturalized after the age 21 is zero, meaning that training before reaching the age 21 helps him/her grow, but, by age 21, he/she is considered 100% "made in China." By contrast, for a player younger than 21, the years spent in his/her adoptive country is considered as local content.

This kind of restriction raises some problems. First, it in part denies the nationality of the naturalized player. Second, it raises the question of whether an individual should be treated like a product, taking his/her "content" into consideration. It will not be a surprise if this approach to nationality is criticized as a violation of human rights. Third, this local content rule may be perceived as targeting Chinese players. Leaving aside whether the rule does, in fact, target them, the rules do place meaningful restrictions on Chinese players.

The Chinese Table Tennis Association accepted the new ITTF eligibility rules. If, due to the absence of such rules, the ITTF World Title events would not have been held, Chinese players would have no place to be active and show off their skills; they would effectively have lost everything.

For the ITTF, promulgating the rules probably did not end the controversy and it was possible that the local content conditions could have met with international criticism. In light of the circumstances described below, the IITF did introduce these rules, which it hoped would be understood by the international community.

First, the population of China is so large and it will produce a numerous number of world class players. Therefore, without the eligibility restriction, the distorted situation in international table tennis will only be exacerbated.

Second, India's population is just as large as China but, unlike China, India does not provide support for training and development of players as an important national policy. During the Cold War, the promotion of national sports flourished. Promotion has now become a thing of the past in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, but it nonetheless continues in China. Promotion deviates from the spirit of sports.

Now, is this country-imposed "local content" condition particular to table tennis? I do not think so. China will send Chinese personnel in response to any call for personnel that requires able-bodied Chinese. This is to be expected but, in the case of China, it may mean that more than a reasonable number of Chinese will be sent, which may result in an adverse reaction from the recipient country. One cannot deny that locals and the international community may react unexpectedly to a large number of Chinese workers being sent to work at the plants of Chinese companies outside of China.

One should not overreact to these phenomena. In the areas that do not require Chinese workers, no such phenomenon exists. So, by way of example, and although this may reflect a prejudice on my part, it is hard to imagine that all of the guests who enjoy the Japanese art of tea will be Chinese.

We need to have a balanced view of China's tremendous possibilities, which are beyond measure. One needs unfettered thinking to grasp and analyze changes that are happening now between a large and energetic China and the international community.