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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 00:07 GMT
Taiwan tries baseball diplomacy

By Caroline Gluck
BBC in Taiwan

Baseball match between a Chinese and Taiwanese team
Taiwan has much more experience of baseball than the mainland
On a chilly afternoon in northern Taipei, teams of baseball players from China and Taiwan limber up, preparing for a friendly match.

While political relations between Beijing and Taipei have been distinctly cool, if not downright hostile in recent months, it is a little surprising to find that exchanges like this are taking place at all.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province - to be reunited by force if necessary.

And Beijing has been angered by plans by President Chen to hold a Referendum on 20 March - the same day as the presidential elections - fearing it will mark a first step towards eventual independence.

But the Chinese baseball players say it was not difficult to get permission to visit Taiwan - even though the timing was so close to Taiwan's presidential elections.

The Tianjin Lions is one of the strongest of the four pro teams on the mainland. Its coach, Jiao Yi, said his team has been to Taiwan several times in the past to train.

Baseball in China is struggling to make its mark against more popular sports, such as basketball and football. A professional league was only established two years ago. And the Chinese authorities are aggressively promoting and investing in the sport - looking ahead to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

By contrast, baseball was introduced to Taiwan around a century ago - and is the island's number one sport, even though it was tarnished a few years ago by a game fixing scandal.


Taiwanese players are competing this year's Olympics in Athens - but under the team name "Chinese Taipei", as China insists Taiwan is not an independent country and lobbies international bodies against granting official recognition to the government in Taipei.

Politics is different. For us, sports is much more important
Jiao Yi
Tianjin Lions Coach

"Taiwan's teams are much better than in China, because they've had the professional teams for a long time and taken part in the Olympics", said Mr Jiao. "We came here so we can learn from them."

As the players practice on the field, a few streets away, vans blare out political campaign songs for the two candidates standing in Taiwan's presidential election on 20 March.

"I've heard people talk about the elections", admitted Mr Jiao. But he said his team were in Taiwan simply for the sport - and hesitated when he was asked if baseball exchanges could help ease tensions between China and Taiwan.

"Politics is different. For us, sports is much more important", he said.

"We only care about how to do our best. Tensions between the two sides doesn't really affect what we do. But I think not just the sports teams, but the two people want to get closer. If they can communicate with each other, it only benefits the two people. "

The Chinese players are visiting Taiwan for over a month for a series of friendly games. Chinese centre-fielder, Lo Yu-bin, says it is valuable training.

"In Taiwan, baseball training goes way back, many years. But it is new in China; many people still do not know what baseball is.

"We all know the teams in Taiwan are traditionally very good, and that puts psychological pressure on us", he said. "But we try to do our best and we know that its good training for us too."


Watching the Tianjin Lions play against their opponents - a team from the Taiwan Cooperative Bank - is Alan Chou. His 19-year-old son is a pitcher for the Taiwanese side.

He nodded his approval and cheered as the two teams battled it out.

"It's very good", he said. "We're all Chinese. For example, my father came from mainland China. Its all the same, the same country. We all speak Chinese, right?"

That feeling was shared by Taiwanese former Olympic baseball player, Chiang Tai-Chuan. He is now working in China as a skills coach for the Tianjin Lions - one of several former Taiwanese players to move to the mainland.

"We should not think that the people of Taiwan and mainland China are enemies", he said. "In sports, and the people who play sports, they're just like families."

But what if the two sides were drawn together to compete in the 2008 Olympics, in Beijing. What side would he be rooting for?

"Both sides!" he said laughing. "I'll be cheering for both sides."

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