Basket case

Chinese basketball faces a gambling controversy

Basket case

Why was he benched? Yi Jianlian

Longtime readers of WiC will be familiar with our lengthy list of articles about match-fixing in China’s football leagues. Our favourite example involved Qingdao Hailifeng in 2009 when, in a first for world football, one of the Qingdao players tried to lob his own goalkeeper. Trying to do so from the half-way line in the final minute of the game made it a particularly obvious stratagem to rig the scoreline.

But over the past year or so, incidences of match-fixing in Chinese soccer seem to be in a pronounced decline. A couple of reasons may explain why. There is more money in the game for players, with teams now owned by rich entrepreneurs and likewise a general crackdown on the rigging scourge has led coaches, referees and footballers to think twice, knowing that corrupt behaviour could result in jail time.

But could the match-fixing problem have switched sports to basketball? That is a fear being aired after a bizarre game in late December involving Guangdong Hongyuan and Beijing Jinyu.

Guangdong went into the game as the heavy favourite, having trounced the opposition in its previous four matches. Beijing, on the other hand, had just lost to Dongguan by a big margin. Gambling websites (illegal in China) had handicapped the match accordingly. Anyone betting on Guangdong would only win if it beat Beijing by more than 8 points.

For most of the first half Guangdong led comfortably, thanks to its star player, Yi Jianlian (see Red Star, WiC166). But in the third quarter, the former NBA player was unexpectedly benched, and Beijing made a surging comeback. In the latter part of that quarter, it scored 18 points to Guangdong’s paltry 2. Yi was also benched for critical chunks of the final quarter. Against all expectations Guangdong lost by 10 points.

Of course, there are upsets in every sport. But there were immediate howls of protest that this was more than that, including comments from local basketball commentator Yang Yi that removing Yi Jianlian for long and crucial parts of the match was a “self-inflicted” blow from Guangdong, and one that needed explaining.

The team’s coach Li Chunjiang later told the press that he had allowed Yi to rest on account of his “physical strength”. But China Business View was having none of it. “Obviously this explanation is unconvincing,” it griped. “This game from beginning to end shows serious discrepancies in the strength of the two teams. Bookmakers made a fortune out of this. This has inevitably led the outside world to link the game with gambling.”

It’s not the first time that the viewing public has suspected a basketball match has been fixed. In fact, Xinhua has lamented that “gambling is slowly eroding the CBA league” (China’s equivalent to the NBA). Nor is the CBA itself denying the possibility, having set up a special working group to look for evidence that gambling syndicates have been influencing results. China Business View also quoted an insider as saying that the phones of some ‘suspected’ players’ are being monitored 24 hours a day.

But the CBA says that it is yet to find any concrete evidence that players have been bribed – and that remains true for the contentious game involving Guangdong too. But it also warns that any players proven guilty of match-fixing could face lifetime bans.

Of course, there is another point here. Gambling remains illegal in China but continues to flourish underground. Especially in Guangdong: about 3,000 betting websites have been closed across the country since 2011, but as the deputy chief of the province’s internet police department points out, 70% of the online bookmakers were based in the province, with Guangdongers accounting for an estimated 40% of internet gambling revenues.

The stakes tend to be high too. A recent trial involving 20 online bookmakers in Foshan found they’d accepted bets worth Rmb10 billion in the two years before they were caught.

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