Thirty years ago, when China was still closed off to most of the world, Chairman Mao Zedong invited a group of American table-tennis players to participate in a week of friendly exhibition matches around the country. Insular and impoverished, China was just emerging from the most chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution. Although he was largely responsible for creating this predicament, Mao saw that sports could help gently pull China out of its isolation.

Ping-pong diplomacy, as it was dubbed, paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 — and for the thaw in relations between the two countries. In those days, the Chinese plastered sporting exhibitions with red banners bearing the slogan: “Friendship First, Competition Second.”

No such banners were hanging from the rafters at Beijing’s Olympic basketball stadium on the night of Aug. 18, when the Georgetown Hoyas tipped off against the Bayi Rockets, the Chinese army team. It was supposed to be a goodwill game, a diplomatic give-and-go. The Hoyas’ tour, timed to coincide with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, was meant to be a sporting diversion to the tensions between the world’s biggest economies. A State Department official had even urged the Hoyas to see themselves as cultural ambassadors, heirs to the ping-pong diplomats. Nobody would blame the college players for believing at the opening tip that the evening would end much like the prior evening’s game: with hugs and warm feelings of cross-cultural camaraderie for their Chinese counterparts.

So how did it go so wrong, with the exhibition degenerating into all-out hostility early in the fourth quarter — sparking a bench-clearing, chair-heaving, game-ending brawl? (Biden, who had watched the less eventful game the night before, missed the melee; he was at a banquet held by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.) Blame has been heaped on the lopsided officiating (the Rockets had 57 free-throw attempts to the Hoyas’ 15); hair-trigger violence (who was that guy in khaki shorts stomping on guard Jason Clark?); and nonexistent security (how were fans allowed to throw bottles at the departing Hoyas?).

Beyond those initial questions, however, is a more compelling one: Does this game — hyped as the “Great Brawl of China” — have any significance beyond the court? Sports and politics can be a volatile mix: Consider the stadium riots that led to the 1969 “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador or the tit-for-tat Olympic boycotts between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Hoyas’ game hardly measures up. It was just an exhibition; nobody was seriously hurt; several Rockets players visited the Hoyas’ hotel on Friday in an attempt to smooth things over.

Yet, even as we should resist the temptation to consider this fight a grand metaphor for an emerging superpower seeking to supplant an established one, the incident does shed light on China and its changing place in the world.

For China, international sporting events are rarely just games; “face” is almost always at stake, even when the purpose is ostensibly diplomatic. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were portrayed not just as another Games, but as incontrovertible proof, for all to see, that China had arrived as a world power.

That impulse runs deep, back to the founding of the People’s Republic. In the 1950s, Mao created the country’s Soviet-style sports system with one purpose: to help China shake off its reputation — gained after a century of foreign domination — as the “weak man of Asia.”

When China earned its first world championship, in table tennis in 1959, ecstatic crowds flooded Tiananmen Square; Mao, exultant, compared the victory to a “nuclear bomb.” Years later, when China rejoined the Olympic movement, Deng Xiaoping’s “gold-medal strategy” — pouring resources into medal-rich sports — turned the quadrennial medal count into a barometer of national progress. Sure enough, China’s tally has leaped from five medals in 1988 to 51 in 2008, when it topped the U.S. for the first time.

None of those medals, however, has come from basketball. Even if hoops may be China’s most popular sport, Chinese teams have fallen short at international competitions. Until 228.6-cm Yao Ming went to the Houston Rockets in 2002, few Chinese thought they could compete in the NBA — largely because of a perceived sense of physical inferiority. This is is one reason Chinese fans took such pride in Yao: He showed that a Chinese man could stand up to (and loom over) some of the world’s biggest, toughest athletes.

Even before Yao retired this summer, the 30-year-old criticized Chinese coaches for treating basketball as a noncontact sport. The only way to succeed internationally, he said, is to play a more physical game. Could the ultra-aggressive play the Hoyas faced last week be a sign of how Chinese basketball is trying to become more American?

The brawling is a more disturbing matter. Chinese players have initiated other fights recently, including one that wounded several Brazilian players last fall. After that, Chinese players had to take sportsmanship classes and, as one sports official put it, to “deeply reflect” on their actions. A few players and coaches were suspended.

It will be intriguing to see what punishment, if any, the Rockets receive. This is not a random club, but the People’s Liberation Army team, for decades the centerpiece of the Chinese sports system. The PLA teams — called Bayi, or 8-1, for the date of the army’s founding — plucked the best young athletes from around the nation. Known for their brutal training regimens, PLA teams were so dominant in China from the 1950s through the 1980s that they were de facto national teams, and symbols of the country’s strength.

Mao’s sports system remains largely intact. But with the influx of foreign stars and commercialization in the Chinese professional league, the Bayi Rockets (the only team not allowed to field foreigners) are now just a middling squad with a reputation for pugnacious play. Even so, the players still view themselves as soldiers, the defenders of China.

One game should not derail U.S.-China ties, nor dissuade other schools from visiting China. Universities, like the NBA, have long-term interests in China’s market: They want to trumpet their brand and, perhaps, recruit the next Yao Ming.

But the days of ping-pong diplomacy are long gone, and China’s old slogan has been flipped around. It’s now competition first, friendship second.

Brook Larmer is the author of “Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar.”

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