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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.

UK trained journalist and long-time Chinese football observer Cameron Wilson has been writing about Chinese football for over a decade...

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Flyingkiwi

    07/10/2016 at 23:39

    Whilst I am no fan of The Sun or it’s style of journalism their point about Chinese games being played in front of “half-empty stadiums” is well made. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Chinese clubs persist in wanting to play in massive arenas that they KNOW they won’t get anywhere near filling. I’ll be going up to Jilin to watch Yatai play next weekend and I know that I’ll be able to get a ticket for about 40 yuan outside the ground and will then have my choice of seats as the “crowd” will, almost certainly, be less than 7K (And Jingkai will hold MANY more than that), I regularly go and watch Beijing BG at the Olympic Stadium which will hold 60,000 but the average BG attendance is closer to 5K. Still, even that pales in comparison to watching Hangzhou Greentown at Huanglong where the “crowd” often gets lost in the vastness of the place. Guoan get reasonably crowds but, even so, there are a lot of empty seats at every game (Granted: the police do take to fencing off of away fans to silly extremes) and even though crowds at Tianjin have been getting bigger recently, still the entire top tier is closed off (Except for the away supported contingent).

    Next week, I will also attend the Yanbian Vs Teda game in Yanji. That is a tiny stadium in comparison to Huanglong or Gongti and will be packed out by passionate supporters which will contribute greatly to what I am sure will be a great atmosphere. Last year, I saw Shijiazhuang’s first game in the CSL and that was packed out, too and when Yiteng were in Harbin, the ICE Stadium used to buzz. In July/August I was in Vietnam where I attended a Danang game (Vs Hanoi T&T) that had MUCH more atmosphere than your average Chinese game and, when in Thailand, attended an Army United (Vs Burriram) game. Both of which where in much more compact stadia. Last year; I watched Kyoto Sanga play at their little ground (On a drizzly day) and even that was a much better experience than your average CSL game.

    If you can fill a big stadium (Evergrande/Guoan), have a big stadium. But if you can’t and you KNOW you can’t, a smaller stadium will be cheaper to operate and contribute tremendously to improving the atmosphere.

    • Cameron Wilson

      08/10/2016 at 14:51

      Yes fair points Kiwi it’s clear many clubs are playing in stadiums which are much too big for them. However clubs don’t own their stadiums so they have no incentive to bring them up to CSL standard – something which many smaller stadiums in China are not. Stadiums are owned by local governments and it tends to be that only the bigger ones are CSL standard, so clubs can’t move so easily to somewhere smaller even if most people would agree that would be the best thing to do.

      The Sun’s focus on half-empty stadiums suggests that crowds at Chinese games are small. But the average crowd for the CSL this year is around 22k which actually more or less puts the CSL in the top ten attended leagues in the world.

      Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou Evergrande, Chongqing, Yanbian and Shijiazhuang are playing infront of close to capacity crowds every week, Shenhua are not far off that this season either.

    • Dylan Shi

      11/10/2016 at 22:07

      I agree that the grounds are a persistent problem in Chinese football but saying a team “play in a half-empty stadium” is not at all the same thing as saying that a team “have no support and their ticket holders would rather be elsewhere.”

      It can be depressing to see a knot of earnest fans nestled in a corner of a cavernous stadium. It can be frustrating to have a running track separating fans from the pitch. It can be maddening to see abominable pitches where matches are moved for meetings and pop concerts and all the other problems that come with clubs not owning their grounds.

      But even when those earnest fans are surrounded by empty space, they’re there, and the hardcore fans who have been supporting their clubs (or possibly more than one club because their teams have been moved through no fault of their own) deserve respect for upholding football culture and carving out spaces for themselves. What’s better: 5,000 fans or 40,000 tourists?

      The Sun themselves say attendance at a Shenxin match (second division!) is comparable to Bournemouth, who play in the EPL. How can they then say no one’s going to see Chinese football? Sure, a given match can be a bit lacking in atmosphere, but so can any match. Plenty of Chinese matches have attendances far exceeding plenty of Championship matches and no one’s saying that no one’s going to see the Championship.

      Hopefully in the future clubs will own their own stadiums, or at least more public football-specific ones will be built and their football tenants will take precedence over golf and Cantopop and the authorities will let go of a bit of their paranoia to allow more sections to open and more banners to be waved.

      The random spectator at Shanghai Stadium did mention he’d heard that the other team in Shanghai (Shenwa? something like that?) did have a better atmosphere, so it’s not like all hope is lost, even when your expectations aren’t met by THE BIGGEST TEAM IN SHANGHAI.

      • Yiddo Huayi

        12/10/2016 at 03:54

        The only thing that beats Cantopop is Spurs in an FA Cup final in a year ending in 1!

  2. Flyingkiwi

    09/10/2016 at 11:07

    I’m aware that Chinese clubs don’t own the grounds that they play at. I’m also aware that Chinese clubs are not individual entities apart from the conglomerate that “owns” them and are, therefore, subject to the whims and fancies of people who make decisions for very non-football related reasons (Liaoning’s move to Panjin the other year as a case in point) and this makes it very hard to argue that Chinese football is particularly fan-focused at the best of times.

    It might well be true to say that attendance statistics put the Chinese league in the top ten. But; we’re talking about the country with the biggest population in the world here. If 45,000 people go to watch Beijing Guoan of a weekend from a city population of 24,000,000 we’re talking about 0.2% of the population. And it’s not like those figures are being diluted by people choosing to go off and watch other Premiership teams from the same area because there aren’t any. Next year in Tianjin will be interesting on this account. If and when Quanjian make it up, what will happen? I expect somebody to move; thus ripping themselves away from their fan-base (Al la Yiteng, et al) as I seriously doubt Tianjin has the capacity to support 2 CSL side (Shanghai, perhaps, does. But it, certainly, couldn’t support 3 and last years “crowds” at Shenxin were derisory).

    Granted: Chongqing, Yanbian, Shijiazhuang, Evergrande and (To a much lesser extent) Guoan play in front of packed-out houses most weekends. But Chongqing, Yanbian and Shijiazhuang play at stadia that are not ridiculously oversized (I’ve not, actually, been to Chongqing’s ground; the only CSL ground that I haven’t visited, but it looks more modest). Evergrande are the Man U of China and benefit from that; whilst Guoan’s attendances go up and down depending on whether or not they are playing one of there many “traditional” rivals. Some other teams seem to do fairly well, too (Hebei CFFC, for one. Jiangsu Suning, also). However; others get crowds comparable to those that turn up for reserve matches in the UK (Yatai, Lvneng, R&F, etc) and drop down a tier to see “crowds” comparable to a park kick-about (Or, at a third tier game, be on a first-name basis with everyone in the ground).

    Another thing that The Sun is correct about is the general standard of the football. I grant you; Evergrande would hold there own in The Championship (NOT the Prems) and Guoan/Jiangsu/SIPG would be there or there abouts, too. But, that is off-set by a good many of the less-well-finaced clubs being of the old Blue Square League standard if they are lucky (And tier 2 games often being little better than schoolboy matches).

    Around Asia; the Chinese league is looked on with a reasonable degree of jealousy because of the amount of money that is being sunk into it. But, let’s be honest, that “investment” has done very little to improve the quality of the football and has only really made the league less competitive. I was hoping that the big money flowing into Jiangsu and SIPG would act as a counterweight to Evergrande’s dominance. But that hasn’t happened.

    • Cameron Wilson

      09/10/2016 at 23:59

      I’ve been to Chongqing’s ground, it’s pretty big, 40-50k capacity something like that but CQ have filled it very well since their return to the CSL. The point is Chinese football gets great crowds considering the trauma it has been through over the years, and with the continuing under achievement of the national team undermining football as a whole. As I said in the article, it’s pointless to compare with England as far as attendances or standards go…

      I don’t agree at all that the Sun is right about the standard of football or with you about that. How are you measuring that? CSL games are not tactical master classes, or textbook matches but the articles tone is that the level here is a joke which is just not true. I’m not much interested in comparing with the championship, what’s the point? Evergrande are never going to play in that league so what does it matter? The Suns comments are just the usual snobby attitude about any league which isn’t a top European one. Anyone going to the CSL to see technically advanced football is missing the point. There are as many highly entertaining CSL games as there are boring EPL matches, quality of football is just one factor contributing to how much enjoyment you get out of a football match. The Sun is just taking the usual narrow approach to it, they made no attempt to look at the positive side whatsoever.

  3. Yiddo Huayi

    09/10/2016 at 12:21

    Thanks Cameron. I always enjoy reading your articles as well as those from the other contributors.

    However we are talking about the same (alleged) “newspaper” that covered Hillsborough in a way that wasn’t actually very factual aren’t we? Enough said.

    Nay chance of getting some comment from Jamie? And whatever happened to Tom Byers and the grassroots programme.

    PS – Also big ups to Donald for his great post on Yuexiushan – shared it with the family. Also great pic of Rong Zhixing in the article – I would hazard a guess that it was in 1981, or maybe 10 January 1982? A classic jersey IMHO!

  4. ukguy66

    10/10/2016 at 01:36

    Great article, Cameron.

    I did indeed read The Sun article and it held to its normal low level of reporting.
    Having visited Shangahi in 2003 to work with Shanghai SIPG – in their previous guise, I know that the Chinese vision is to build a football industry yet it will take some time and they should be commended for that ambition but The Sun’s slack and inconsistent comments should not detract from what is an exciting project for both domestic and international football

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