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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has pulled its entire men's table tennis team - including the three top-ranked players - from a major tournament in Australia next week due to a rare public spat that boiled over after the removal of the national team's head coach last week.
The International Table Tennis Federation said six Chinese players had been withdrawn from the Australia Open in a statement on its website, after three Chinese players boycotted last week's China Open in support of removed coach Liu Guoliang.
The federation said the decision, made by the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), was "unfortunate" because it also hit Chinese players who had not been involved in the boycott.
The swift and firm reaction by China's sporting authorities to dissent among the ranks underlines the strict control Beijing exerts over its sporting stars from national sport ping pong to soccer, where the country has invested billions of dollars.
The row drew the ire of fans, who flocked online to vent their anger over the decision, as well as the gaze of China's censors who swiftly moved to hush the online furore, including censoring Liu's name and the word "ping pong".
After being rebuked, though, the players who missed their games issued identical apologies. Liu also issued an apology on his social media platform and said fans and players "should firmly support President Xi Jinping's various reform plans."
Liu, who was in charge of an invincible Chinese team for four years, was reassigned to a vice president position at the CTTA.
China is keen to create a huge new sporting industry and has pledged in sports like soccer to hand over more regulatory power to independent sporting bodies. Many, however, say the state has not stepped back and still takes a heavy-handed approach.
Reporting by Pei Li and Adam Jourdan; editing by Amlan Chakraborty