A banner quoting Chinese president Xi Jingping on the importance of tradition and culture, brandished by Shanghai Shenhua fans protesting their club’s name change, was confiscated by police amid angry scenes at Hongkou Stadium on Saturday night.
At the end of Saturday’s Yangtze Delta Derby against Hangzhou, which resulted in a miserable 3-1 defeat for Shenhua, members of the club’s biggest fan’s group, the Blue Devils, raised a large banner which quoted a line from Xi Jinping’ speech made at a Politburo collective study meeting last month, and widely reported in the Chinese media.
The banner read 抛弃传统等于割断精神命脉 (paoqi chuantong dengyu geduan jingshen mingmai) which translates roughly as “abandoning tradition is tantamount to severing your spiritual lifeline.” The link to Shanghai Shenhua’s current predicament – the protest against new owners Greenland removing “Shenhua” from the club’s name – was clear for all to see , including Hongkou’s police who stormed into the north terrace to confiscate the banner.
China’s authorities are traditionally very wary of large public gatherings and any remotely contentious expressions or statements uttered in such circumstances are frowned upon. Government policy continually emphasizes the concept of “harmonious society”, furthermore, Chinese culture tends to favour settling contentious matters of any kind behind closed doors. In this context, publicly displaying a serving president’s words in a profoundly “unharmonious” situation is a somewhat provocative and controversial act.
Police waded into the crowd, who had stayed behind after the final whistle to continue the protests which saw fans remain silent and seated for the first 19 minutes of the game, to confiscate the banner. However they were met with some resistance and scuffles broke out (before the video below starts). Following a stand off and a great deal of angry chanting from the fans, police left with the offending banner and no arrests were made.
The snatching of the banner came at the end of a terse evening at Hongkou Stadium which had “bad vibes” written all over it right from the start. The first 19 minutes of the game were somewhat surreal, the atmosphere in the 20,000+ crowd muted as the entire north and south terraces united in silence. Both ends then abruptly brought the house to life with a rousing “5,4,3,2,1” countdown (see video below) and thunderous chants of “Shenhua, Shenhua” followed by the refrain for the night, “huan wo Shenuha” (give us back Shenhua).
The scene had been set earlier. Anger had erupted online with the club’s official online PPTV channel commentator Zhou Liang lambasting Greenland for rewriting the club’s history – referring to the new official webpage claim that “Shanghai Greenland FC was established in 1993” although this erroneous statement seems to have since been corrected.
Greenland also made their mark elsewhere – fans approaching the ground found the stadium draped in “Greenland FC” banners and flags, and some other purely commercial billboards promoting Greenland’s business, including one featuring a careless spelling mistake in English. These flags became targets for a group of Shenhua fans who covered them with stickers bearing anti-Greenland slogans.
Inside the stadium, Greenland bussed in 3,000 of their own employees, kitted out North Korean style in identical Greenland FC shirts. A swathe of security personnel segregated these fans from the Blue Boys fans group on the south terrace – a larger swathe in fact, than the size of the detachment used to separate the Hangzhou fans from the rest of the home support.
With ten minutes of the match remaining, the Greenland fans’ section was almost empty – pictures appeared on Weibo mocking their lack of commitment “Does your boss now you are knocking off work early?” joked one Shenhua poster. By contrast, both the north and south terraces, home to Shenhua’s two main fan groups, were jam packed even after the final whistle.
According to a Weibo post doing the rounds, Greenland’s employees were advised not to drive to the match lest anything about their cars lead them to be identified as affiliated to Greenland – certain Chinese football fans have a habit of attacking private cars in the past. They were also instructed to avoid any kind of conflict with regular fans and remove their “Greenland tops” before exiting the stadium.
The mood in Shanghai in the days that have passed since the protest seems to be that, the club and the media have only just realised the gravity of the situation. The 2-0 opening day victory over Shenxin appears to have been a smokescreen both on and off the pitch – Shenhua were not tested by a very poor Shenxin side, which was tanked 5-1 by East Asia on Sunday in a second consecutive Shanghai Derby defeat.
At that same match, which was some 50km out in the suburbs, protests were a little muted. Indeed, national media coverage of the name-change issue was light at best, almost as if they did not understand that name-changing is not something Shanghainese football fans take kindly to, at least not those of a Shenhua persuasion. But the powerful protest at the first home game, and all the shenanigans surrounding it, has spelled out the magnitude of the situation all concerned now find themselves in.
Indicative of the change in perception was an opinion piece in the Oriental Sports Daily by leading Chinese football writer Ji Yuyang. He opined that Greenland chairman, Zhang Yuliang who was present at the match, surely could not help but have been moved by the size and volume of the protest, and suggested that if the company wanted to gain full approval from the fans, then putting “Shenhua” back into the club’s name was “surely a very small concession to make.”
Ji’s essay was significant in that it was the first column from a heavyweight journalist to suggest that the name change was wrong rather than urging the fans to just accept it, or castigating them for being idealistic. The Oriential Sports Daily also happens to be the Shanghai region’s most influential sports paper.
After the game, media reports began to surface from inside the squad suggesting the protest was having an effect. “It’s very difficult to play in this awkward atmosphere, no matter what the situation is we need the fans to get right behind us,” said an unnamed player in the Shanghai media. Indeed, the appalling error which led to Hangzhou’s first goal of night was made by made by Xu Liang – Shenhua’s most experienced and talented domestic first team player. It may well not be a coincidence that such an uncharacteristic slip-up from Xu came in this of all matches.
Greenland remain silent on the name change issue. Meanwhile, the Shenhua support are regrouping to discuss their next move – desire to continue the protest is rock solid with many fans feeling they simply have nothing to lose.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015