‘Sports diplomacy lives!” raved a former national security official traveling with the Georgetown University basketball team on a visit to China timed to coincide with Vice President Biden’s trip this week. That was before a brawl ended the Hoyas’ game against a professional Chinese team tied to the Chinese military.

Americans love sports metaphors. So perhaps the less than pacific end to the contest with the Bayi Rockets—the name refers to August 1, 1927, the date of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army—may begin to erode the lingering nostalgia, at least in official circles, for the 1970s, when “ping pong diplomacy” advanced ties with the People’s Republic. Then, America was confident of its ability to set up Beijing as a counterweight to Moscow—and Beijing was a mostly willing partner in the task. But those days of comity are long gone. They’ve been replaced by an ongoing rivalry for influence in Asia and the world.

Recently, American officials have displayed an unseemly eagerness to please Chinese leaders. Indeed, the vice president’s trip risks having the unfortunate feel of a “tribute” visit to the Middle Kingdom. “You are our national affairs,” Biden gushed to Xi Jinping, the presumed next general secretary, who had thanked the vice president for taking time away from domestic duties.

Biden made more sense last May, when he told a senior Chinese delegation visiting Washington that “no relationship that’s real can be built on a false foundation.” Back then, Biden spoke of human rights and the rule of law. The “foundation” imagery is especially apt, considering that Biden continues his China trip with a planned visit to Sichuan province. In 2008 the Sichuan earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese, including many children crushed in schools that collapsed due to corrupt and shoddy construction.

At the time, the government harassed and coerced grieving and protesting parents to sign releases of liability. Journalists received directives not to travel to the area. Bloggers and activists—like Tan Zuoren, who tried to create a database of victims—were jailed. These days the Chinese Communist party is repeating the fiasco in Wenzhou, where officials literally tried to bury evidence of a deadly crash of high speed trains in July.

Certain realities of China’s Communist rule are obvious even amid economic growth and the easing of some totalitarian controls. While in Sichuan, the vice president plans to visit a rebuilt school in Dujiangyan, 40 miles from Chengdu. On August 10, the blogger Ran Yunfei, who merely commented about rumors of a “Jasmine Revolution,” was released from a detention center in Dujiangyan, possibly to remove any unpleasant symbolism. Dissident Liu Xianbin did not have the same luck, however. In March a Sichuan court sentenced the veteran democracy activist to 10 years for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Vice President Biden’s loquaciousness is legendary. But a “gaffe” can sometimes contain an important truth, such as when the vice president mentioned Russia’s economic and demographic decline in 2009. Perhaps Biden will commit a similar diplomatic faux pas by speaking unapologetically about the differences between the United States and China and the superiority of American democracy. Otherwise, how will the Chinese people who take the time and trouble to elude the Great Firewall of the Internet know the basis of our “national affairs”—and how can they feel encouraged in their effort to improve their own?

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