The timing couldn’t have been much worse. On November 7, just 24 hours before President Donald Trump touched down in Beijing, three American basketball players from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) were caught shoplifting in Hangzhou.
Making matters worse, they were there for a game sponsored by Alibaba, which was aimed at promoting American college basketball in China (no doubt UCLA wanted to boost its profile among Chinese parents as well). The match was scheduled to take place on Singles’ Day, Alibaba’s most important event of the year.
The game went ahead while the three players were kept under detention in their Hangzhou hotel, only metres away from the mall where they were accused of stealing Louis Vuitton sunglasses.
Adding spice to the story, one of the offenders is LiAngelo Ball, the younger brother of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball. Their talkative father LaVar, who is dubbed “a media figure of Trumpian omnipresence”, was also in Hong Kong this week to promote his “Big Baller” trainers (which sell for about $500) and film his Facebook reality show Ball in the Family.
The behaviour of Ball junior and his two teammates left many Chinese baffled. “LiAngelo drives a Ferrari at home but comes to China to shoplift? So odd!” said one. “If they had just waited to November 11 they could have bought what they wanted on Taobao,” joked another, referring to Singles’ Day bargains.
The trio eventually flew out of Shanghai on Tuesday, reportedly on bail, and escaped potentially harsh penalties. Theft of items valued at over Rmb4,000 ($600) – such as the sunglasses in question – is punishable by up to two years in prison. If they also stole from other shops, as some reports alleged, the trio could have been looking at a decade in jail under Chinese law.
Last year a young man from Shaanxi was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing Rmb2 worth of sausage, while this summer an 80 year-old man was given six months for stealing Rmb100 of fruit.
Some Chinese rightly predicted the players would get off lightly by dint of being famous foreigners.
Speaking on Air Force One as he left Asia on Tuesday, Trump said he had interceded on the players’ behalf when he dined with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing. “President Xi has been terrific on that subject. But that was not a good subject,” Trump said. “That was not something that should have happened.”
The young men have thanked Trump and apologised. “I’m sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” said Ball, “I’ve learned my lesson from this big mistake and I’m a hundred percent sure I’ll never make a mistake like this again.”
American basketball fans will be happy that China’s often criticised rule of law – or the lack of it – failed to deliver blind justice. Instead the intervention of two of the world’s most powerful men led to a reprieve.
It is not clear whether the players paid any compensation.
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