June 26, 2017 / 10:30 AM / a year ago

China seeks ping-pong diplomacy to defuse coaching row

BEIJING (Reuters) - The removal of China’s top table tennis coach has stirred up rare tensions in the country’s sporting world, prompting a backlash from leading players and fans, and drawing the gaze of the country’s censors.

2016 Rio Olympics - Table Tennis - Men's Team - Victory Ceremony - Riocentro - Pavilion 3 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 17/08/2016. Gold medallists Ma Long (CHN) of China, Xu Xin (CHN) of China and Zhang Jike (CHN) of China pose with their coach Liu Guoliang and other members of their team on the podium. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. - RTX2MG2C

Fans of table tennis, China’s unofficial national sport, flocked online to vent their anger over the removal of the national team’s popular head coach, Liu Guoliang, who stepped down from his position last week.

The country’s three top players also boycotted a tournament on Friday and posted statements online: “We don’t feel like playing any more right now, because we miss you Liu Guoliang.”

In response, mentions of Liu, ping pong and Gou Zhongwen, the director of China’s powerful General Administration of Sport, became the top censored words online on Monday, according to Free Weibo, a censorship-tracking site.

The uproar, and the rush to quell it, underscores growing unrest with China’s Soviet-style management of sports, where Beijing still often plays a controlling role, even as it looks to foster a multi-billion dollar sporting market.

Table Tennis - China Open tournament - Men's Doubles Semi-final Match - Chengdu - China - June 23, 2017 - Xu Xin (CHN) of China talks to Fan Zhendong (CHN) of China during the China Open tournament. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

In sports like soccer, the government has promised more autonomy for sporting bodies, but heavy-handed regulation has pointed to continued involvement of the state behind the scenes.

After Liu’s removal he was reassigned as one of a large number of vice presidents of the China Table Tennis Association.

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The country’s state media and censors quickly moved to quell any complaints.

“Abandoning the tournament and making a scene... is not only unhelpful but also means the relevant individuals will have to pay a cost for their unreasonable actions,” the official People’s Daily said in an editorial on Saturday.

The three players’ posts of support for Liu were later deleted and the trio posted identical apologies late on Sunday.

One person familiar with the matter said Internet portals had also been asked to dial down coverage of the furore.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

The Chinese Table Tennis Association could not be reached for comment. The General Administration of Sport, which said on Friday the players’ behavior was “a breach of professional ethics”, declined to comment further on Monday.

Others online said China’s table tennis team — which dominates globally — would simply suffer as rivals took advantage of the internal strife.

“Japan and Germany must be really happy, now that (the sports administration) has shot itself in the foot,” said one user on Weibo.

Reporting by Li Pei and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by Adam Jourdan and John O'Brien

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