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The transfer market: China’s other bubble and will it pop?

For the past five years, there has been talk about the “bubble” that exists in the Chinese real estate market, even now, you’ll see a story almost every week about this volatile market, but prices just keep going up. Though it’s been a shorter amount of time, the Chinese Super League has experienced a similar bubble during each of the last three winter transfer windows.

Unlike with the real estate market, the cause of that bubble is very simple, Guangzhou Evergrande. Since they joined the CSL, they have driven transfer fees to unimaginable heights. The top transfer fee nearly doubled the first year Evergrande joined the top flight, and since then it has steadily risen, almost doubling again this season, with the highest fee paid for Yu Hanchao, who joined Dalian Aerbin for a reported minimum RMB30 million.

Year Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
2012 Yu Dabao 17 Dalian Aerbin
2011 Jiang Ning 13 Guangzhou Evergrande
2010 Gao Lin 6 Guangzhou Evergrande*
2009 Wang Xinxin 4 Tianjin Teda
2008 Ji Mingyi 4 Chengdu Blades

*in 2010, despite Evergrande being in the China League, they still paid the highest transfer fee

If you look at individual transfer fees, it’s all the more striking:


Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
Yu Hanchao 30 Dalian Aerbin
Zhao Peng 20 Guangzhou Evergrande
Yang Xu 20 Shandong Luneng
Wu Xi 16 Jiangsu Sainty
Chen Tao 15 Dalian Aerbin


Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
Yu Dabao 17 Dalian Aerbin
Rong Hao 12 Guangzhou Evergrande
Deng Zhuoxiang 10 Jiangsu Sainty
Cheng Yuelei 5 Guangzhou R&F
Mao Jianqing 4.5 Beijing Guoan


Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
Jiang Ning 13 Guangzhou Evergrande
Feng Xiaoting 12.5 Guangzhou Evergrande
Zhang Linpeng 10 Guangzhou Evergrande
Liu Jianye 7 Jiangsu Sainty
Wang Qiang 5 Shandong Luneng


Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
Qu Bo 4.5 Guizhou Renhe~
Mao Jianqing 3.5 Guizhou Renhe~
Tan Wansong 3 Tianjin Teda
Wang Song 2.8 Hangzhou Greentown
Xu Liang 2.8 Beijing Guoan

-record transfer fee was Gao Lin, but this list is only CSL sides
~in 2010, this club was Shaanxi Renhe


Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
Wang Xinxin 4.5 Tianjin Teda
Chen Tao 3.8 Shanghai Shenhua
Lu Bofei 2 Jiangsu Sainty
Zheng Bin 2 Shenzhen Ruby
Zeng Cheng 1 Henan Construction

If you go back before 2009, the stats look much the same, with the top fee just under RMB5 million and a close bunch of the other top five fees. In 2011, you can see the huge impact Evergrande made on the transfer market. While over the last two years, they have only had the one of the top five transfer fees, their impact is far more subtle. Both in 2012 and 2013, they were a serious player in the talks for the Yu Dabao and Yu Hanchao, in fact in the case of Dabao, they had him in Guangzhou close to signing a contract.

Of course, it’s also an issue of keeping up with the Wangs, as Evergrande spent so big to turn themselves into a title side, other teams have been forced to join in the arms race for the very small number of highly skilled local talent.

Many clubs are left behind in this new transfer trend, as they simply can’t afford to participate. Others, like Beijing Guoan, refuse to participate in what they consider to be an “irrational” market place. However, is this really just a bubble or is this the new reality in Chinese football? There is anecdotal evidence that suggests this is a bubble, for example, Wuhan Zall paid RMB5 million for middling defender Qiu Tianyi, while youngster Jin Jingdao was valued at RMB8 million by Shandong Luneng. In 2011, Guoan paid RMB3 million for his former teammate, Piao Cheng, who most view as the better of the pair. This also shows that the value that was perceived to exist for younger, talented lower division players has all but dried up.

In fact, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a bubble like this in the CSL. In the early 2000s, in the midst of the high that came from qualifying for the World Cup, there was a lot of new money that came into Chinese football.

Year Player Price (in millions of RMB) Team Joined
2007 Wang Liang 4.8 Shandong Luneng
2006 Li Weifeng 4.9 Shanghai Shenhua
2005 Zheng Zhi 8.5 Shandong Luneng
2004 Li Jinyu 12 Shandong Luneng
2003 Wu Chengying 13 Inter Shanghai
2002 Qi Hong 9.5 Inter Shanghai
2001 Qu Shengliu 5.5 Shanghai Shenhua
2000 Ou Chuliang 4.9 Yunnan Hongta
1999 Peng Weiguo 2.3 Shenzhen Pingan
1998 Hao Haidong 2.2 Dalian Shide
1997 Gao Hongbo 1.2 Guangzhou Songri

As can be seen, Inter Shanghai, in hopes of battling it out for the hearts and minds of fans in that city, spent a lot of money to buy local stars and came very close to buying winning a title. Shandong also spent a lot of money in reloading their roster and did win a title. However, those years are always marked with a black stain in the league’s history as teams didn’t only spend big on players, they also spent on buying referees or other clubs (it should be noted one of the record signings on this list, Qi Hong, is currently in jail).

How long this bubble can continue for is anyone’s guess. With Evergrande’s squad almost entirely made up of national teamers, it seems hard to imagine them continuing to spend the way they have. The market probably won’t bottom out anytime soon, however it is unlikely that any club will break the record fee spent on Yu Hanchao in the next few seasons. The new reality is that for a Chinese national team player, it’s likely to cost a club anywhere from RMB15-20 million, a substantial investment.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.



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