The Chinese junior men's national team, pictured here, struck a blow for freedom when it issued an open protest against its abusive coach, Fin Ban (right).

From the New York Times comes a story about the changing face of athletics in China, namely that young athletes are revolting against the totalitarian government and its stringent and abusive practices. Recently the national junior men’s basketball team issued a public protest in unison against the physical and emotional abuse from longtime coach Fan Bin, which resulted in his suspension after increased pressure from the public. Athletes who once were more than happy to subject themselves to anything in the name of the glory of the People’s Republic of China are now daring to ask if Chinese glory is worth the cost of personal well-being and routine violations of their civil rights.

The highest profile case, and the one thought to be the initial crack in the dam of open revolt in China’s state-sponsored athletic hegemony, was when 2011 women’s French Open champion Li Na abandoned the system in a brazen and rebellious manner and openly criticized it to the international press. The Party, certainly not happy at a successful athlete thumbing her nose at authority, issued a directive to the press  just days after her win to cease coverage of her win.

The Chinese system has come under increased scrutiny due to the presence of social media in the country, which has made it much harder for the Party to control their message and censor material and opinions that are openly critical of the Chinese government in all its forms. This has only been exacerbated over the course of the last few months by a sweeping tide of international reform that some will say started with the Arab Spring but I honestly believe has been brewing for some time internationally and had its start in no single geographic location, but rather in an internet culture that breeds and aggressively insists on openness, transparency, and free speech.

But change is slow going, evidenced by the continued abuses and cases like that of champion gymnast Zhang Shangwu,  spit out by the system and recently found homeless and pan-handling in Beijing.

It’s not just the oppressive and abusive nature of the system that’s shocking, but also the Party’s open defense of it. From the article:

Corporal punishment has long been used by coaches and teachers in China to instill a strict code of discipline. But this rite of passage is increasingly controversial, much to the dismay of sports officials.

“Coaches treat their players like their children, and it’s completely normal for parents to hit their kids,” Bai Xilin, the C.B.A.’s chairman of game operations, said in an interview.

Bai acknowledged that the old guard has trouble relating to younger players who have grown up in a more open and prosperous era. But he dismissed the players’ complaints as evidence of a generation gone spoiled. “Kids these days are unable to eat bitterness,” he said. “They want the results but they aren’t willing to endure the hard times.”

Rather than condemn the coach’s behavior, Bai criticized the players, who he believes betrayed the sports system by going to the news media with their protest rather than trusting the issue would be solved internally.

The youth of China faces an uphill battle. They’re going up against a system built not with brick and mortar but with the blood, bones, and flesh of its own people, thrust into involuntary servitude and brainwashed into thinking they were heroes for their unwitting sacrifice. This is a country where the vast majority of people under the age of thirty have no idea that anything happened in Tianamen Square in 1989.

But something IS happening. It’s an uphill battle, yes, but the important thing is that after so many decades they’re actually seeing the hill for the first time and asking who put it there and why.

The next five years is going to be fascinating, if not turbulent. Not just for Chinese sports, but for China as a whole and the rest of the world.

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