Category Archives: Sport

Unsporting Behaviour

THE OLYMPIC GAMES and nationalism are old if not particularly attractive bedfellows.

This is not just a case of elites and masses basking in the reflected glory of exceptional individual athletic achievement by a fellow citizen.

For small nations, it offers what can be a rare opportunity to wave a flag on the international stage. For larger countries, it becomes a projection of national prowess. The United States now battles China to top the gold medals count as fiercely as it once did the old Soviet Union.

Nor is it just the Olympics that prompt these outbursts of national pride and the risk that they will spill over into something darker, especially if domestic media have unrealistically built up popular expectations in advance. Football tournaments can be just as chauvinistic.

Yet there is something about the Olympics that brings out peak jingoism everywhere. It is not for nothing that winning athletes symbolically wrap themselves in the flag.

Thus this Bystander’s eye has been caught by reports of extreme reactions on social media to some of the performances by Chinese athletes at the Tokyo games. Online nationalists have vilified failure to win anything less than a gold medal as failing the nation and unpatriotic.

The online abuse was particularly evident after Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin lost the gold medal match of the mixed doubles in table tennis to Japan’s Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani and after Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen lost to the Taiwanese pair, Lee Yang and Wang Chi-Lin, in the final of the badminton men’s doubles.

Losing to Japanese or Taiwanese opponents hits a particular nerve. Yet, Yang Qian, who won gold in the women’s 10-metre air rifle event, was criticised for a Weibo post last year showing her Nike shoe collection. She was slammed online for not supporting the consumer boycott of the US sports apparel maker over its stance on the alleged use of forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton production.

Meanwhile, teammate Wang Luyao suffered the ire of some netizens for not qualifying for the final of the event.

Overall, the spitefulness got so bad that Weibo suspended the accounts of 33 users, and censors deleted some of the most hyper-nationalist posts.

Such behaviour online is far from unique to China, and bigoted trolls outshout more moderate voices everywhere. However, the reports suggest a relentlessness to the attacks driven the prevalence online of young Chinese who have grown up to the drumbeat of a substantial increase in nationalist sentiment.

As the country’s global influence has grown, the official narrative has emphasised both pride in China and its success and portrayed any international criticism as ‘bullying’ to be resisted. Dengist notions of hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time just seem redundant to that generation.

Swapping its wannabe wolf warrior cap for its consumer hat, this cohort is also more likely to favour domestic brands over foreign ones when shopping. That may also be a development cycle effect as consumers in emerging economies tend first to favour exclusive foreign brands before reaching a point of economic development at which they turn to domestic brands as a reaffirmation of their own advances.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any country expressing its national identity and patriotism, promoting its national interests and culture, or searching for prestige and international admiration. Yet, even with the ebbing tide of globalisation, that need not turn into heightened tensions with other nations, or worse, the militarism to which Western commentators often quickly make an unspoken connection.

That that dotted line ends up pointing to a threat of the state in China’s case but libertarian militias in the United States is a separate conundrum.

Nonetheless, Beijing has frequently used nationalist sentiment for political ends in international disputes, especially with regional neighbours. It has been adept at dialling it up or down as deemed necessary. However, the risk is always that it will spin out of control.

Nationalism under populist, not Party control, would concern the leadership. The most outspoken online trolls will be tempered.

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Extensive Punishments Imposed For Gansu Race Tragedy

THE PUNISHMENTS OF officials following the deaths of 21 competitors in an ultramarathon in Gansu on May 22 are unusually extensive. 

In all, 27 people, including several municipal government officials, face disciplinary punishment or criminal charges, according to state media,

Zhang Wenling, the magistrate (head official) of Jingtai county, has been dismissed from office. Zhang Xuchen and Su Jun, the mayor and Party chief, respectively, of Baiyin city, where the race was based, have been disciplined. Other officials were given warnings and demerit ratings.

Li Zuobi, the Party chief in Jingtai, has reportedly committed suicide on June 9 by jumping from his high-rise apartment. 

Zhang Xiaoyan, the owner of the marketing company that organised the race, Gansu Shengjing Sports and Culture Development, and four of his staff have been detained and face criminal charges. If convicted of direct responsibility, they could receive prison terms of up to seven years.

The broad sweep of the punishments suggests that there may have been attempts at a cover-up or other issues uncovered. Ding Keya and Luo Wentao, who headed the Jingtai’s propaganda department, have been referred to prosecutors for a corruption investigation.

At very least. the province is responding to public anger expressed on social media about Bayin city officals’ lack of contingency planning for the race and subsequent response to the deaths.

Runners were hit by hail, heavy rain and gale-force winds in an exposed, mountainous section of the 100-km course, causing hypothermia. Victims included elite Chinese long-distance runners Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun. Some 50 of the more than 170 competitors sheltered in shepherd’s cave’s until rescued.

A provincial-level report into the race, released on June 11, attributed the tragedy to irregular and unprofessional race organisation. Organisers were blamed for ignoring warnings of extreme weather during the 100-km race in Yellow River Stone Forest, not requiring runners to carry protective clothing and being underprepared for an emergency.

In the wake of the incident, China announced it was suspending all high-risk sports events lacking clear oversight, rules and safety standards.

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China Suspends Risky Ultra Sports Events

SPORT’S OVERARCHING AUTHORITY, the General Administration of Sport of China, has suspended all high-risk competitions, including ultramarathons and other long-distance running events.

This follows the deaths last month of 21 ultramarathoners after bad weather suddenly turned extreme in a high-altitude section of a 100-km race in the Yellow River Stone Forest in Jingtai County, Gansu province.

The suspension applies to ultra-long distance, trail running, desert trekking, wingsuit flying and water sports events that lack clear oversight, rules and safety standards. Road running events are to be strictly regulated.

Participants in the Yellow River Stone Forest ultramarathon have criticised the event’s organisation as ill-prepared. Social media saw a public outcry over lax standards at the private marketing company that ran the event and weak oversight by local municipal officials who hosted the race.

Some 60 long-distance running events had already been cancelled or suspended, including the Beijing 100 Ultra Trail Running Race that had been due to be held this weekend.

The suspension is likely to remain in force for at least three months, with commercial events facing more stringent official supervision after that.

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Beijing Will Act On Gansu Ultramarathon Disaster

Rescue and recovery team searches for the remains of 21 ultramarathoners who died in severe weather while competing in a 100-kms race in Yellow River Stone Forest in Jingtai County, Gansu Province on May 22, 2021. Photo credit: Fire and Rescue Department of Gansu via Xinhua.

THE DEATHS OF 21 ultramarathoners after bad weather suddenly turned extreme in a high-altitude section of a 100-km race in the Yellow River Stone Forest in Jingtai County, Gansu province was a tragedy on a scale thankfully rare in sport. This Bystander cannot recall an event in which so many athletes were killed while participating.

It is also a tragedy that creates headlines that undermine China’s narrative of superior governance. Not surprisingly, state media have concentrated on the speed and effectiveness of the rescue and recovery operation (shown above) organised by higher levels of government. All 21 bodies were recovered within 24 hours despite continuing hail, freezing rain and gale-force winds.

The dead included ultramarathon champion Liang Jing, at least two other elite runners, Cao Pengfei and Huang Yinbin, and national Paralympian champion Huang Guanjun. The weather changed while many of the elite runners were in the rugged and remote, high-altitude section 20 kilometres to 31 kilometres into the race. The photo above gives a sense of the terrain.

Questions will be asked about whether the race was well enough organised to deal with the contingency of unexpected severe weather, always a risk in the mountains. The race was not halted until some of the 172 runners had gone missing. It appears it was some of those, not the organisers or on-course race officials, who raised the alarm.

There will also be questions about the pre-race weather forecasts. Did the local meteorologists get their forecast wrong, or had they got it right but downplayed the dangers or were ignored or over-ruled by race organisers?

State media suggest that the race went ahead despite warnings of bad weather.

The terrain along the running course is complex, and there was a possibility of short-term extreme weather in the area, according to local weather authorities.

What often happens in such tragedies is that higher levels of government scapegoat local officials so that disaster can be portrayed as an outlier incident.

The event was hosted by the Baiyin Municipal Party Committee and Municipal Government and operated by Gansu Shengjing Sports and Culture Development Co., Ltd, a marketing and events company. Gansu Shengjing Sports apparently won the bidding to stage the now four-year-old event from Baiyin City. However, details of both the company’s bid and its experience in organising long-distance races are sketchy.

Marathoning and ultramarathoning have become popular. Businesses have been popping up across the country to put on races to meet the fast-growing need. However, entry fees are low and the sponsorship infrastructure that supports the showpiece events such as the Beijing Marathon is not in place for local events. There have been previous reports of poor race organisation as a result of corner-cutting on costs. (Update: reports now say the Gansu Shangling Sports has no permanent staff and hired 22 inexperienced temporary staff to run the event.)

The relationship between Gansu Shengjing Sports’ owners, Wu Shiyuan and Zhang Xiaoyan, and the mayor of Baiyin City, Zhang Xuchen, may well be purely commercial. Wu has several other local business interests in catering and landscaping, among others. If there is anything untoward to be found, it will likely get uncovered, given the anti-corruption campaign is still in full swing.

The State Sports General Administration has also called a national meeting about event safety, suggesting the disaster is getting attention in Beijing. (Update: more than a dozen distance races across the country have been cancelled or suspended on safety grounds since the Gansu disaster.)

Mayor Zhang has apologised publicly for the tragedy as the event’s organiser. He will likely find himself in alternative employment at some point in the not too distant future.

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Jiangsu FC Brought Low At The Top Of Its Game

Screenshot of logo of Jiangsu Suning FC

OUR MAN AMONG the muddied oafs sends word that China’s football champions, Jiangsu FC, has gone out of business. This is an event unimaginable in any other league or even sport. This Bystander cannot imagine, say, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid suddenly ceasing operations, nor, in American football, the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or baseball’s World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers just shutting up shop, no matter how financially stretched they, or their backers, might be.

Chinese football clubs are particularly sponsor-dependent, however. Jiangsu FC’s main backer is the heavily indebted electronic retailer Suning, which is getting a $2.3 billion state-led bailout. This will leave the Nanjing-based retail group 23% controlled by the Shenzhen city government.

Suning has failed to make the transition from bricks and mortar retail to e-commerce. Signs of the football club’s fate were foreshadowed in December when Zhang Jindong, Suning’s billionaire founder whose stake in his company will drop to 16.4% from 24.9% as a result of the bailout, said his company would focus on retail.

The decision to close down Jiangsu FC will be received nervously in Milan. One of the city’s two top teams, Inter Milan, is also owned by Suning. Our man tells us that it is not believed there that Inter, which is currently leading the Italian league, will be shut down, but it is looking for new investors.

Suning had been looking for six months to sell Jiangsu FC but could not find a taker. Authorities are taking a less benign view of the game of late, not seeing it as an avenue for global soft power as strongly as it once did. Interest in China in the domestic game is also less than the interest in foreign leagues and clubs. Sponsorship and TV rights are being scaled back, and costs at all Super League clubs will have to be cut commensurately.

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China-Europe Relations Get Another Kick

Screenshot of Premier League listing of broadcasters in China, September 4, 2020

THE TERMINATION BY England’s elite football league, the Premiership, of its broadcast rights deal in China potentially gives another kick to the already bruised relationship with Europe.

The cause of the cancellation of the three-season £564 million ($700 million) contract is said to be streaming service PPTV withholding a £160 million payment that was due in March. PPTV is owned by retail billionaire Zhang Jindong’s Suning Holdings.

With the suspension of the Premier League because of Covid-19, there were no games to stream. Negotiations between the two sides over a rebate and revised terms for the coming season, which will start next week behind closed doors, have come to nothing so far but reportedly are not entirely dead.

The cancellation could be a negotiating ploy, but Suning’s talk of a ‘strategic adjustment‘ does not suggest the door is open too far. Nonetheless, the cancellation will take a bite out of the £4.2 billion the League has sold the overseas rights to its games last season, this and next.

The dispute appears to be contractural. However, but politics is never far from sport. The NBA, the globally expanding dominant professional basketball league in the United States, got a sharp lesson in that last year when its games were temporarily taken off-air in China following a tweet supporting Hong Kong protestors by an official of one of its teams.

Last December, what looked like an organised social media campaign called for one of the Premier League’s top teams, Arsenal, to fire one of their star players, Mesut Ozil for being critical of Beijing’s treatment of his fellow Muslims.

Relations between the United Kingdom and China have since taken a turn for the worse over Hong Kong and after the U-turn by the UK government excluded Huawei from its 5G network.

The cancellation also came as Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded a five-nation bridge-building visit to Europe ahead of the China-EU summit on September 14. The trip did not go as well. It highlighted that the distances between Europe and China on issues such as Huawei, human rights, Hong Kong and Taiwan remain enormous.

Wang’s warning in Norway that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to any Hong Kong protesters would be taken as interference in China’s internal affairs particularly didn’t go down well, kindling memories of the years-long rift caused by awarding of the 2010 prize to the late activist Liu Xiaobo.

Nor did his threat that president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, would ‘pay a heavy price’ for leading a delegation to Taiwan. This earned Wang an sharp rebuke from Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, that was supported by several of his EU colleagues. Such tough talk, even if couched in diplomatic niceties, marks a turn for the Europeans.

None of that, however, undermines Beijing’s need for better relations with Europe as insurance against a US-European coalition against it — or the Premier League’s need to serve one of its biggest markets.

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Kicking Out Freedom Of Thought

THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION, the dominant professional basketball league in the United States, got into hot water politically and commercially in China earlier this year when an official of one of its teams tweeted his support of the protests in Hong Kong.

Football may not carry the same geopolitical sensitivities in this era of Beijing-Washington confrontation as US pro sports. Still, reaction to critical comments over China’s treatment of its Uighurs by Mesut Özil a German of Turkish descent who plays for Arsenal in the English Premier League and who is Muslim, has been no less quick or punitive.

Planned live coverage of Arsenal’s match against the defending league champions Manchester City last weekend was dropped by the state broadcaster, despite the club quickly distancing itself from its player’s comments, saying it was an apolitical organisation.

State and Party media weighed into Özil with both feet. NetEase, the online technology company founded by billionaire Ding Lei, patriotically removed the player from three of its video games, including the highly popular Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 Mobile.

Özil did get support, however, from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted that:

China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Özil and Arsenal’s game all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross human rights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.

Less noticed was that the German club FC Cologne has finally pulled out of a deal to run a training academy in China. Stefan Müller-Römer, a lawyer who is a member of the football club’s council, told his local newspaper that ‘as a non-profit organisation that is socially active, [FC Cologne] cannot support such a brutal and totalitarian dictatorship’.

No such qualms at FIFA, world football’s governing body, which recently voted to stage its inaugural world club championship in China in 2021. Its newly-appointed head of global football development, Arsene Wenger, who when he was the manager of Arsenal signed Ozil for the club, tiptoed along a fine line, saying:

Mesut Özil has freedom of speech like everyone else, and he uses his notoriety to express his opinions, which are not necessarily shared by everybody. What’s important is that Ozil has an individual responsibility…When you make a comment about your individual opinion, you accept the consequences of it.

At least, Özil retains his freedom of speech, even in the politically sanitised world of professional sport. The charters of at least three universities in China, including the relatively liberal Fudan University in Shanghai, have been rewritten to remove or downplay references to academic independence and freedom of thought, with ‘implementing the Party’s direction, principles and policy’ and similar patriotic prescriptions superseding them.

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China-U.S. Trade Talks Become A Different Game

CHINESE AND U.S. trade negotiators resume high-level talks in Washington on Thursday. The run-up could scarcely be less promising.

On Monday, the U.S. blacklisted 28 Chinese organisations for their role in what the Trump administration alleges is repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The 28, which include both government agencies and technology companies specialising in surveillance equipment, will be added to the Entity List, which means they will require U.S., government permission to purchase anything from U.S. companies.

This brings a human rights dimension to the trade talks that the Trump administration has mostly sought to keep at arm’s length. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump had told President Xi Jinping in a phone call that he would not condemn the protests in Hong Kong in order not to jeopardise the trade discussions.

Those injected themselves into the conversation regardless over the weekend after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the U.S. professional basketball team, the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association (NBA), on Friday evening tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests. He deleted his tweet overnight, but that did not prevent a deluge of criticism and retaliation from China, and damnation of the NBA within the United States for what many there said was craven capitulation by the NBA to protect what is now its most important market. The Rockets are particularly popular in China as it is the team that made Yao Ming into a superstar.

The Rockets’ attempts to recover from that position has been no less unedifying. It will be intriguing to see how two NBA preseason games to be played in Shanghai and Shenzhen at the week are received.

The affair offers a clear example of Chinese retaliation — perhaps more accurately a chilling threat of retaliation — against a U.S. business expressing a political line unacceptable to Beijing. It also shows the levers of pressure authorities can apply in such circumstances to U.S. businesses that are increasingly dependent on the Chinese market for growth.

However, it underlines how the Trump administration’s tariff-centric approach to applying pressure on the trade negotiations puts excessive emphasis on merchandise trade when so much of the big money in U.S-China trade is no longer that.

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Money Makes The Ball Go Round

A Song Dynasty painting by Su Hanchen, depicting Chinese children playing cuju.

IN THE HOME of capitalism, the purchase and employment of professional footballers are tightly regulated, almost socialistic. Unlike in the United States, in purportedly Communist China, the same enterprise is red in tooth and claw.

Money speaks. Loudly. And it is currently providing a siren song for a host of foreign professional players being lured to the Chinese Super League. The 16 clubs in its top division now number at least 75 foreign players between them, and the roster is swelling daily.

Alex Teixeira, a 26-year-old Brazilian midfielder, is only the latest, joining Jiangsu Suning, which bought him from  Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine for 367 million yuan ($55.8 million), a record transfer for an Asian club. The ink on the old record was barely dry: earlier in the week, Guangzhou Evergrande paid 308 million yuan for Jackson Martinez, a 29-year-old Colombia striker, who previously plied his trade for Spanish team, Atletico Madrid.

That, in turn, had broken the record set at the end of January when Brazilian Ramires moved to Jiangsu Suning from Chelsea of the English Premier League for 237 million yuan.

These are transfer fees of a size that would buy top players in Europe at the height of their careers, and there are reportedly wages to match. A host of Teixeira and Ramires’ fellow countrymen — a third of the 75 foreign players in Chinas top division are from Brazil, where they now joke that footballers have replaced commodities as the top export to China — along with Martinez and other internationals such as Ivory Coast’s Gervinho, have been vaulted into the ranks of the world’s best-paid professional footballers.

Awaiting them is a galaxy of top coaches who have between them won pretty much everything there is to win in world soccer. It includes Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached the Brazil national team at the World Cup and is now at Chinese and Asian Champions League reigning champions Evergrande ,and Sven-Goran Eriksson, a former England coach, who is now with Shanghai SIPG.

If it is the money that is attracting such talent, the obvious question is why is so much cash being flashed now.

The short answer is that the Chinese Super League, which opens its new season next month, is on the up and up. The corruption and match-fixing scandals of recent memory are now behind it. Within a couple of years, our man among the muddied oafs tells us, the league will be drawing the third highest crowds in the world to its games, behind only Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League.

But it is the long answers that are the more interesting; they involve that perennial Chinese overlap of commercial self-interest, political connections and national soft power, in this case through a ‘cultural industry’.

In October, 2014, the State Council approved a national plan to raise the sports industry’s gross output to 5 trillion yuan by 2025 — almost 16 times its value in 2012. The Chinese Football Association’s part of that is manifested in a reform plan approved a year ago, setting a goal of qualifying for the World Cup again by professionalizing the game’s bureaucratic management and promoting youth participation.

President Xi Jinping is reputedly a big soccer fan, and wants Chinese football to make its mark in the world. He understands that China has to increase its soft power along with the rise of China’s hard power. Football, which China claims to have invented (see picture above), would fit the bill.

Xi has made no secret that he would like to see FIFA’s World Cup staged in China, which would be an affirmation of the country’s global standing —  as the 2008 Beijing Olympic games were. At one point, 2036 was being talked of as the target date; now 2030 is thought to be the earliest feasible target. In the meantime, just getting the national team to qualify for the Finals is the goal.

Plenty of wealthy businessmen have stepped forward to support the cause — especially the bolstering output part — by bolstering the domestic game.

China Sports Media, a Shanghai-based cultural investment firm, outbid state-broadcaster CCTV for the broadcast rights to the Super League. This year, its 8 billion yuan five-year TV contract kicks in. Last season, the league’s domestic TV rights sold for 50 million yuan. That in itself is a marker of how fast-growing the domestic audience for the game is growing, as well as a reason that the competitive quality of the fare being served up has to be improved.

The other half of the money side of the story is that construction companies seem especially attracted to a game that needs stadiums built, which, in turn, anchor all sorts of commercial, retail and residential development. Real estate interests own 13 of the 16 teams in the Super League’s top division.

Guangzhou Evergrande is jointly owned by the eponymous real estate company and Jack Ma’s internet giant Alibaba (a smart deal for the property development group’s founder Xu Jiaxin, who paid 100 million yuan for the club in 2010 before selling half of it to Ma for 1.2 billion yuan within four years).

In the other direction, Chinese state and private investors have bought Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic and Sochaux in France. They have a stake in Atletico Madrid and are paying $400 million for a 13% stake in the Gulf-based group that owns Manchester City in England, New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and a stake in Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos. These are all investments in which the return is learning the mechanics of professional football club management in all its commercial and sporting dimensions.

However, there is a huge divide to cross between having a richly paid foreign-star studded domestic league drawing a large TV audience and a national team capable of competing creditably against the world’s best it the World Cup, and an even greater chasm between the professional and grassroots games.

The sheer weight of population implies that the country should be capable of producing eleven men who can play football along with the best of them. Even matching the China women team’s top-20 FIFA world ranking seems far off: the Chinese men’s national team has qualified for just one World Cup finals, in 2002, and is struggling to make it to Russia in 2018.

To that end, the government has set a target of having 20,000 schools playing the sport on a weekly basis by next year as a platform for an even bigger programme. Meanwhile, Guangzhou Evergrande has built what is reputed the world’s biggest soccer academy (with a bit of help from Real Madrid), just one of thousands of academies that have been set up.

However, developing the game at the grassroots is hard and patient work. It would always be foolish to bet against the state’s capacity to mobilize the country’s youth to create world-class athletes, but in countries, like Brazil, that do it naturally, the game is deeply imbedded in the popular culture, and played from birth in the favelas, on the beaches and in the streets, with Brazilian idols as role models.

The situation of the game in China reminds this Bystander of the United States in the 1970s. The North American Soccer League (NASL) threw huge sums of money at aging South American and European stars in the hope it would kick start the game there. The League collapsed under the weight of its financial instability.

The widespread acceptance of the game as being for anything but immigrants and expatriates took generations. The United States has a globally competitive national team, Americans play in the top leagues around the world and the domestic league, Major League Soccer, is increasingly strong and stable, having learnt the lessons of the financial excesses of its predecessor, the NASL.

The lesson for China is that it was the children of those Americans who watched the NASL who started to learn football at school and college, but it was their children and grandchildren, who had grown up kicking a ball with their fathers and mothers and each other, who became good at it.

Similarly, it will be the grandchildren of those watching Teixeira, Martinez, Ramires and the rest in the Super League this season who will be pulling on their red shirts for China in the World Cup Finals — long after this current mad spending spree by the clubs has burnt out.

Update: Xi has made “hosting, qualifying for, and winning a World Cup” national goals, state media report. Control of the development of the game has been returned to the Chinese Football Association, with the Chinese Football Administrative Center, one of 21 sports departments of the General Administration of Sport, abolished.

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Li Ruigang: Kicking On With Soft Power

Li Ruigang, Founding Chairman, CMC Capital Partners, seen at a World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian, September 11, 2015. Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt Von Loebell. Licenced under Creative Commons.LI RUIGANG IS one of those particular Chinese combinations of government official, Party insider and entrepreneur — and perhaps a proto manifestation of the statist-corporatist economy that President Xi Jinping sees as China’s future.

In the 2000s, a 30s-something Li, though a state official who had started out with a degree in journalism and a job as a reporter on a local Shanghai TV station, was a pioneer in China’s fledgling media market. Rising rapidly through the programming ranks, he brought foreign programming and popular international TV formats to the staid, insular world of state broadcasting. He also married TV and radio with online and mobile media, riding the emerging wave of  young newly affluent Chinese going online.

As president of Shanghai Media Corp., a state broadcaster formed in 2002 when the city’s television and radio stations merged, he turned a municipal broadcaster into a national media powerhouse. His vision of popular programming allied to mastery of the crease where global popular culture meets Chinese mass propaganda meant that even staid national state broadcaster CCTV could not ignore SMC’s transforming influence.

In western media terms, he was a meld of such media moguls as News Corps’ Rupert Murdoch and Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, both of whom Li numbers as friends. As the photo above indicates, he now moves in that world of the global great, good and successful.

By 2009, Li had overseen a fourfold increase in SMC’s revenue to $1.2 billion. That year, he founded China Media Capital Holdings (CMC), a state-backed Shanghai-based private equity and venture capital firm specializing in cultural, media and entertainment investments inside and outside China. At the same time, he started to scale back his work at SMC, though he would not finally cut formal ties until this year.

Li’s motives for switching from state official to state-backed venture capitalist are complex. Not all his programming deals with foreign media companies panned out. A public sale of SMC shares planned for 2009 was put on ice following the 2008 global financial crisis. Other political constraints on SMC’s freedom to do deals with foreign partners started to chafe.

But Li was not railing against the system. In 2011, when he stepped down from full-time management at SMC, he would become deputy Party chief in Shanghai. He retained the confidence of his political superiors that he could be trusted in the fast evolving world of media, even as the soft power of cultural assets became more of a national concern.

Among some of CMC’s recent investments are:

  • a deal to develop a Legoland amusement park outside Shanghai;
  • a joint venture with Warner Bros to co-produce Chinese-language films (DreamWorks Animation is already a JV partner. Kung Fu Panda 3 is the result of that); and
  • with Jack Ma’s Alibaba and Tencent, a company to develop InternetTV.

CMC’s latest deal, announced this week, is a $400 million 13% stake in City Football Group. CFG is the holding company owned by Sheihk Mansour from the United Arab Emirates for English professional football club, Manchester City FC, its U.S. sibling, New York City FC, its Australian cousin Melbourne City FC and a stake in Japan’s Yokohama F. Marinos.

Li is following another Chinese entrepreneur, Wang Jianlin, founder of the property group Dalian Wanda, in investing in European professional sports. Both men have an eye to exploiting the Chinese TV market for watching the teams’ games, buying their merchandise and learning the ropes of what is becoming an increasingly lucrative part of the media business.

Even back in his SMC days, Li understood the importance for broadcaster of both creating and owning content and having the means to distribute it.

CMC already owns a slate of sports media rights, including those for Chinese Super League. It blew away CCTV for those with a spectacular five-year 8 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) bid in October; previously the rights had sold for 50 million yuan a year.

The Manchester City deal might also prove an avenue for improving the woeful standard of the game within China. President Xi would love for the country to hold its head high as a world footballing power. China ranks 84th in Fifa’s global rankings for national teams and is not even number one in Asia. South Korea is 48th and Japan 50th.

Xi would also like China to host a World Cup, as South Korea and Japan have already done. A World Cup final in Beijing would, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, be another sign of China’s emergence on the world stage.

Li’s deal, reportedly two years in the making, now seems it make it clear why Xi chose to visit the Manchester City club during his recent state visit to England.

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