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Atkins: Liu Jian, forged contracts and Chinese justice

There has been a lot to celebrate in Chinese football over the past few seasons and, here at Wild East Football, we have been committed to bringing those improvements to the attention of a wider audience. There are, though, still plenty of aspects of football in China that are deserving of criticism both on and off the pitch. Sadly, despite the increase in expenditure and quality of foreign recruits, there is little sign of many such issues abating.

The latest such minefield has been the conflict between Qingdao Jonoon, their former captain Liu Jian and champions Guangzhou Evergrande over the player’s February transfer to the Cantonese capital. Jonoon insist that the player’s contract had already been renewed, rendering his free transfer agreement invalid. The player has denied ever having signed any such renewal, as well as making public the club’s previous use of illegal yin-yang contracts used to reduce tax burdens.

Much to the frustration of both the player and Evergrande, the dispute has dragged on for over two months before finally reaching a conclusion of sorts earlier this week. The renewed contract was deemed to be forged. Ordinarily, such an outcome would be cause for compensation and criminal lawsuits, with fraudulent behaviour rightfully frowned upon in most societies worldwide. In China, though, the outcome has been predictably different.

It is firstly important to note that, despite multiple media outlets reporting the outcome of the CFA inquest, no official announcement has yet been made. Instead, in the days following the hearing falling in Evergrande’s favour, the Cantonese club’s lawyers have arrived in Beijing to bash out a settlement with Jonoon over the incident. While talk had been of points reductions, massive fines and blocks on the side earning promotion back to the Super League, it now appears significant punishment has been avoided.

For anyone who has lived in China, such an attitude will be of little surprise. It is a country in which, should you accidentally knock someone down in your car, standard procedure is to bash out a compensation agreement at the side of the road. Even if police should be called, they normally act in the role of arbitrator rather than take an active role in pursuing a criminal case. If no agreement is reached, the car is impounded as negotiations continue at the station. It is a country where monetary compensation can ensure legal proceedings are avoided for misdemeanours of practically any level.

Evergrande had made their demands clear, with the club insisting Liu Jian be joined at Evergrande by two of his former colleagues. Midfielder turned right-back Zou Zheng was chased by Beijing Guoan all winter and was seemingly identified by the club as a suggested makeweight, while he was joined by 21-year-old forward Wang Xiufu. Zou, 26, is perhaps the only player in Qingdao’s current squad who can be said to be nearing international level. Wang, meanwhile, is one of the many young players in China to have spent time in Portugal, having spent two years developing his game with third tier side Casa Pia.

The agreement, though, failed to reach concensus. Evergrande had offered to pay 20 million RMB (€2.4 million) for the additional pair which, while decent value for Chinese talent, begs the question of how they are actually benefitting from victory in the drawn-out legal proceedings. Qingdao, though, insisted they could not accept such terms. The process has been entirely opaque and, instead, we are left with mutterings of “other factors” that are at play in the negotiations. Given the magnitude of the offence, which extends beyond football, it is entirely unsatisfactory. Then again, it is entirely typical of the country’s mechanisms.

The entire fiasco is symptomatic of the mess in which Chinese football too often finds itself. It is less than six months since Shanghai Shenhua were ordered by FIFA to pay €12 million to Didier Drogba due to the breaking of his contract, while in the intervening period a number of players have headed to the game’s governing body with cases of their own.

Of those cases, more than one involves Qingdao Jonoon. Australian forward Joel Griffiths has taken the club to FIFA over the ending of his contract a year early, while Gabriel Melkam was involved in a bizarre incident where he claims the club accused him of match-fixing in order to avoid paying outstanding money owed. Both cases are ongoing, but it is clear that a pattern is emerging that fits with other rumours coming out of the club. The example of Drogba, who remains unpaid, has yet to change mindsets of many owners in China.

Indeed, the national indifference to contracts being unilaterally torn up or, in this case, seemingly forged is worrying. Some within the media have even felt Qingdao Jonoon hard done-by in the situation, having lost the ability to make money off their biggest asset after honing his skills since the age of 17. The reality of contracts in football, so engrained in the fabric of the game since the Bosman ruling, has yet to hit home in China. Qingdao Jonoon have been singled out, but they are far from alone in treating players’ rights with contempt.

And so, the saga rumbles on. Liu Jian is, at least, officially training with his new club and has travelled to Tianjin ahead of Friday’s Chinese Super League encounter. On Friday morning,  the CFA made Liu Jian a free agent following the collapse of the settlement talks and Evergrande announced that he has been officially registered as a player of the club. The saga is not yet over though. In a bizarre turn of events, Qingdao have since held a press conference suggesting that Liu Jian himself faked the signature on the contract in order to keep open the possibility of leaving the club. They also issued a request for him to return to the club and fulfil what they consider a legitimate deal. The whole situation is a sorry mess.

Of late, President Xi Jinping has spoken of his desire to see China develop as a footballing nation. For that to happen, outdated attitudes among those responsible for developing football need modernising and, gradually, those changes are beginning to be seen. However, until the CFA becomes more transparent and consistent in its dealings, punishing significant wrongdoing with meaningful penalties, Chinese football will continue to shoot itself in the foot regarding its international image.

Such developments are all part of the learning curve that the wider Chinese society is also taking and, indeed, football so often mirrors the society of a country. The next step cannot be taken, though, until fit and proper regulatory structures are implemented and justice stops being the mandate of chummy old boys in a hidden room. Indeed, reports on this latest incident suggest the CFA are encouraging both sides “not to make a fuss”. That, in itself, would suggest that it is a step that Chinese football is not yet willing to take.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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