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Understanding disinformation: The Sun’s scathing attack on Chinese football explained

Wild East Football was originally established way back in 2010 to report the Chinese game in as frank and constructive manner as possible to counter the international media’s sole focus on corruption and other negative elements. During the past six years we have seen many ill-informed and poorly-researched pieces make judgments on Chinese football, but until now we have never responded specifically to any one piece. However, UK tabloid The Sun’s “Chinese fakeaway” article over-steps the boundaries of reasonable reporting by such a huge margin that it cannot go unchallenged.

Chinese football is a very difficult thing to understand because, like everything in China, it is complex and inter-connected with so many other things, more so than in most other countries. One cannot look only at football alone to understand what happens in Chinese football. Other parts of the puzzle connect with wider society, politics and economics and all influence the game here in differing ways, both explicit and discrete. So anyone flying in to write something looking to make a strong conclusion about Chinese football is fighting an uphill battle from the start because most often, they don’t know the context. That is not the journalist’s fault as it’s not possible to know it without a really solid understanding of both the game in China and the country itself.

This is the default position a journalist starts in, assuming they are seeking to write a balanced and accurate piece to the best of their ability based on the facts they are able to gather and make sense of. It’s hard enough for the real story to get out without the writer bringing pre-conceived ideas to support a newspaper’s agenda, narrative, or any other emotional baggage which gets in the way of the truth. Such baggage The Sun has in great abundance. It is a publication with a long and dubious record of playing fast and loose with the facts and of outright hostility to anyone not sharing its narrow and simplistic conservative views. Smear campaigns, selective editing, personal attacks, a lax attitude to fact-checking, and publishing outright lies are the bread and butter of this newspaper. It’s dreadful reporting of the Hillsborough disaster and libeling of Liverpool football fans is just one famous example of it’s terrible history of judgmental reporting based on openly prejudiced stereotypes and a pathological need to twist everything to suit their purpose.

So let’s take a look at the Sun’s article and dissect it piece-by-piece so we can really see what’s going on. First up, the headline starts with

The Sun says: CHINESE FAKEAWAY: Football fans would rather watch the English Premier League than China’s sub-standard fare

WEF says: The judgmental and EPL-centric tone of the article is set right from the start. Straight away its ignoring the simple fact that the EPL is an immensely popular league in most countries in the world but somehow China is being blamed for being like everyone else. “Sub-standard” – compared to what? The EPL? It’s not news that the CSL isn’t as good as the EPL and no-one expects it to be anytime soon – so what is the story?

The Sun says: “Jealousy between its homegrown footballers and the vastly overpaid millionaire mercenaries who have flocked to the Chinese Super League”

WEF says: Again, if we are to use The Sun’s yardstick of comparing with the EPL – is there no jealousy or rivalry between players over their salaries, and are there no over-paid millionaire mercenaries playing in England? Of course this exists in China. But if anything, the domestic players are aware they are not on the same footballing level as their foreign counterparts. China being the hierarchical society it is, most accept their particular rung on the ladder as a fact of life, or at least don’t expect their treatment to differ until they have done something to climb to a higher rung. Foreign players get paid a lot more simply because  CSL clubs want to bring foreign players who are better than the Chinese players, otherwise what’s the point in signing them? It seems bizarre for this sentence to be in the opening paragraphs of the article – is this the most insightful thing the Sun’s “investigation” has revealed?

The Sun says: “And this curious drama is being played out in front of half-empty stadiums”

WEF says: We’re barely into the article and it’s already rolling out tired old cliches about there being no fans. For years we saw countless international media ramble on about no-one being at the matches. This has never been true for the vast majority of clubs. Whilst attendances for the CSL were barely above 10k a decade ago, they are now more than double that. The game The Sun reporter took in, Shanghai SIPG v Beijing Guoan, had a crowd of around 26k. That is many times more than the few thousand Shanghai SIPG (then East Asia) got in the China League One a few years back before their promotion in 2012. So SIPG’s crowds can only be described as a success. Even the half-empty claim is misleading – SIPG’s stadium is limited to 46k for football for safety reasons. So actually more than half the available tickets in the stadium were sold. Shanghai has a big population? Sure, but football culture is a relatively new thing here and when the EPL clubs were 20 years old they didn’t have clubs on the other side of the world competing to attract fans in their own backyard.

The Sun says: “Even the fans who do bother turning up would rather be watching the Premier League”

WEF says: In that case why are they turning up at all? EPL and CSL games are generally not on at the same time. The story ignores the fact that CSL football is entertaining enough to attract 26,000 people to a stadium to watch one of it’s matches. Comparing CSL and EPL attendances is the proverbial apple and oranges situation – they both have vastly different histories and current situations. Top league football in China has been going barely two decades in a country which had little football tradition until recent times, it is just pointless to juxtapose EPL and CSL attendances.

The Sun says: “A feeling among coaches and foreign players that Chinese  footballers do not have the work ethic to become top players”

WEF says: There is some truth to this. Many Chinese players lack professionalism, for example drinking and smoking it not uncommon, players are often picked based on seniority rather than merit, and many clubs lack properly professional setups and coaches to correct these matters. But when English players were smoking and drinking their heads off back in the 80s, China didn’t even have a football league. So developing a properly professional setup from top to bottom, takes time, just as it does everywhere else, especially when it is a developmental and cultural issue. The Sun should have backed it’s claim up by putting it into proper context rather than quoting anonymous nobodies.

The Sun says: “Ticket touts struggling to flog seats at a fraction of  face value”

WEF says: More contradiction here from The Sun – the match they attended, SIPG v Beijing Guoan, was “half-full” according to them. If the game isn’t anywhere close to sold out then no tout anywhere in the world is going to sell tickets for what they were bought for since anyone can still buy a ticket at normal price through normal channels. In any case, many tickets on the street for games are unwanted hospitality or company briefs ending up in the hands of people who would rather sell them for 100% profit.  Again, it seems odd this is what the “investigation” thinks noteworthy.

The Sun says: “The standard of football is on a par with League One — at best. Sports bars jam-packed for Premier League matches”

WEF says: They watched one game. Comparing is it not the point, and it’s an apples and oranges thing again anyway. As for crammed Sports Bars – again… is China to be blamed for it’s people liking the EPL just like everyone else? Perhaps The Sun thinks that China’s “communist regime” should prevent its people from seeing corrupting live foreign broadcasts such as EPL matches?

The Sun says: “The atmosphere for their game against Beijing Guoan was largely non-existent”

WEF says: This is just a lie. Shanghai Stadium may not be the best arena for football, but it gets plenty noisy for the dozens of games involving many different teams your correspondent has taken in there. And, since they insist on comparing, does anyone still believe the average EPL game has a great atmosphere anymore?

The Sun says: “I’ve been watching Hulk and he looks heavy, tired and unfit. He’s just walking around the pitch, not doing a lot.”

WEF says: It’s true Hulk, as a key player, was rushed back to play for SIPG before he was properly fit – something else not unique to the CSL. But the quote comes from an English teacher who, if you watch the video interview which accompanies the story on The Sun’s website, is clearly at one of his first SIPG matches and is going to “check out the other team in Shanghai, what’s their name again?” So here we have a Sun Reporter who has barely spent anytime in China, interviewing guys who have barely seen any Chinese football games, yet he comes up with such a damming indictment on Chinese football as a whole.

The Sun says: “The gulf in quality between the permitted five foreign imports and six Chinese players in each team was embarrassing”

WEF says: Basic factual error – there must always be at least seven Chinese players on the pitch at any one time and there can only be four foreigners at most, one must be from another Asian country. But again, are Chinese players meant to be on a similar level as guys bought for 50 million euros? The gap is significant in some cases but not all, and to describe it as embarrassing is a pure exaggeration.

The Sun says: “Foreign players in China are treated like kings…Chinese football expert Lu Win said: “They only have to click their fingers and people will run around for them.”

WEF says: This is most likely a made up quote – your correspondent pretty much knows every Chinese football expert quoted in the international media and Lu Win isn’t one of them. If it’s not made up, it’s probably from the only English speaker The Sun could find able to say what they wanted to hear.

The Sun says: “Chinese businessmen see England as a far safer and a faster financially rewarding investment.”

WEF says: So the vast millions being spent on bringing these top players to Chinese clubs are not coming from Chinese businessmen? Is there some rule saying that you must choose between investing in Chinese football and investing in English football?

The Sun says: “Alex Teixeira, Ramires and Hulk are big names but none of them have played a single minute for Brazil since setting foot in China”

WEF says: Ramires was dropped from Brazil whilst at Chelsea, Teixeria has never played for his national side, and Hulk has been mostly injured since he joined SIPG. However, Shandong Luneng’s Graziano Pellè played for Italy versus Spain last night.

Anyway, we could go on and on redressing the balance of this article. Not to mention the England-centric approach in this piece and others published from the same “investigation” – The Sun basically interviews English teachers at an SIPG game, an English player at Changchun and an English manager at Shanghai Shenxin and concludes Chinese people are lazy and local players are jealous of millionaire foreign teammates. There isn’t a shred of anything which hasn’t been said before or any insight which couldn’t be gleaned from using Google. Besides, given the gap between the EPL and CSL shouldn’t a writer who makes his living from covering the “Greatest league in the world” have a more magnanimous attitude towards a new and exciting emerging league? Post-Brexit, England is a bit sore these days, perhaps The Sun wants to make it’s readers feel better by attacking others who would also dare to build a football league based on a lot of money?

But the point is that, The Sun did what they always do – find an angle that appeals to their readership and look selectively for facts which support that story. And if they can’t find find those, no problem, some anonymous quotes will do the trick – along with some prejudiced and racist generalizations or assumptions to wrap it up. Most detestable of all about this article was a quote:

“The Chinese come across as lazy generally – surely a by-product of a communist regime that has ruled their land since 1949.

“For years, their government has done and thought everything for them. Only here have I seen people shamelessly sleeping on the job … like two workers at an airport help desk in the city of Changchun in the middle of the afternoon in full view of passengers.”

This absolutely deplorable remark has since been deleted by The Sun without any acknowledgement – thankfully the South China Morning Post spotted it before it was taken down. But to say 1.3 billion people are lazy because you saw two people having an afternoon nap (often a cultural practise in China, and who knows how long the people in question had been working for)…well, it’s just mind-boggling that such an ignorant and racist observation can appear in a major mainstream publication in this day and age. It says a lot about what is really going on inside the heads of those at the The Sun. It appears that you can write whatever you want, no matter how simple-minded is, if it can be used to attack something which resembles The Sun’s usual scapegoats, ie. everything not on the right wing of British politics. In this case, the Chinese government’s “communism” and “doing everything” for the people are targets viewed through The Sun’s narrow political prism.

To sum up how absurd The Sun’s article is we need only ask a simple question – can anyone possibly imagine The Sun’s “investigation” resulting in a gushing headline and story about how wonderful Chinese football is and how it compares so well to the EPL? Of course not! It was always going to be something negative, inaccurate, scathing and disrespectful, just like most of what The Sun writes about Johnny Foreigner. This outcome of this “investigation” was decided before it even began. It’s typically biased and dangerous misinformation cynically designed to appeal to an uninformed readership and keep them that way.

We can’t change The Sun, but we can at least influence what people’s perception of Chinese football is. This country, like all others, has it’s fair share of shortcomings but it is home to an aspirational people who look forwards and not backwards. There is real passion for football here and a desire to see it improve and that deserves support. China’s football ambitions are lofty and may not be achieved anytime soon, but there should be respect for putting so much effort into something as great as the sport of football rather than trashing it to suit the dated and backwards prejudices of The Sun.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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