For decades the English have been unable to play football against Germany without falling back on past military triumphs. If German fans cheer “Three Word Cups”, the English crowd will riposte “Two World Wars” – a reference to English victory in both conflicts (albeit one that seems to gloss over the role of its allies).
Meanwhile the tabloid press fuels the obsession. The Mirror nicknamed Franz Beckenbauer ‘the Kaiser’ and in 1996 even declared war on Germany on its front page, featuring two England players wearing helmets from the Second World War. Even in defeat, the imagery persists. After England got clobbered 4-1 by the Germans in one match, the Daily Mail compared the performance sourly with the heroism of the pilots at the Battle of Britain in 1940, ranting: “If the Few had defended as badly as England we’d all be speaking German now.”
Football is one thing, but in the world of sport tennis is usually a lot less political.
Not last week, though, when Li Na of China played in the WTA Pan Pacific Open. She exited the tournament in the quarter-finals but that wasn’t the source of the controversy. It was the venue – Tokyo – that caused the problems.
With China and Japan in a bitter (and ongoing) diplomatic dispute over a group of contested islands in the East China Sea, Li’s decision to play in the tournament was soon riling public opinion. Nationalistic netizens took to their weibo to call the tennis player a “traitor”. A survey of over 25,000 on Sina took the public temperature, with 48% of respondents convinced that Li should not have gone to Japan. In a separate question, 23% also expressed the view that Li’s “image as a ‘national hero’ of the Chinese people has collapsed”; and a further 31% said she had competed “for personal gain regardless of the overall situation, which is disappointing.”
In the wake of her 2011 Grand Slam victory at the French Open, Li became the nation’s golden girl. That stardom was lucrative, with sponsors flocking to make her the country’s best paid sports star (see WiC127).
Now, according to China Daily Li is staying “silent” on the Japan issue. At a press conference, WTA officials also deflected questions about the island row.
But sections of the Chinese press avoided the nationalist line. The China Youth Daily suggested that criticising a professional tennis player for playing in a tournament was “black logic”, especially as Li had promised to play months earlier. The “choice is not traitorous”, the newspaper thought, and the fact Li had been so roundly criticised reflected poorly on the nation’s education. Web portal ifeng.com likewise defended Li calling her “a real individualist” in counterpoint to so many other Chinese who are “soaked in collectivism”.
But other celebrities elected to boycott visits to Japan. Actress Li Bingbing chose not to attend the Tokyo premiere of her new movie Resident Evil; Retribution (see WiC163). Chinese pianist Li Yundi also postponed a concert in the Japanese capital.
Nor is it just entertainers who are cancelling their flights to Japan. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday a swathe of senior Chinese bankers are also giving the IMF World Bank meeting a miss, because it is being held in Tokyo next week, as well as Swift’s SIBOS conference, also taking place in Japan towards the end of the month. The Journal says several major banks have cancelled their participation in these high-profile international gatherings. “Quite frankly, it’s Japan-China relations,” an official with Agricultural Bank of China told the newspaper.
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