Every transfer window, the Chinese Super League becomes the object of attention from football-watchers all over the world, primed for news of another record-breaking transfer or a big pay day for a star snatched up from the European leagues.
In recent weeks, consternation has a People’s Daily interview with an official from the General Administration for Sport (GAS), who suggested that steps should be taken to “regulate and restrain high-priced signings, and make reasonable restrictions on players’ high incomes.” One year ago, the China Super League spent more than any other league on transfers. Could this be the end of the boom for the CSL’s imported talent?
Less than likely. A key element of the National Football Reform Plan, released in draft in March 2015 before formal publication in April 2016, is the separation of the Chinese Football Association from the General Administration for Sport. This divorce was finalised on January 7 of this year, with the state-backed Global Times reporting the CFA is now independent and no longer double-hatted as the GAS Football Administration Center. The initial reform plan called for the Party Committee of the CFA to be staffed in part by officials from the GAS. This time, it seems that even the back-door linkage between the Chinese Football Association and its former parent organisation is gone. While the remarks from the General Administration of Sport official has attracted headlines, a cap on salaries or transfer spending is unlikely, for the simple reason that the General Administration for Sport does not have the authority to do so. Instead of being a warning sign that the boon times of the CSL are coming to an end, the People’s Daily interview is an indication that Chinese football will be subject to bureaucratic infighting.
There are two reason for this. Football is big business in China, and the body of government that wins the right to set the rules by which the CSL operates will profit as a result. In financial terms, licensing fees, broadcast rights and so forth will bolster the coffers of the agency in change. In the case at hand, GAS’s suggestion of a cap on salaries and transfer fees may lead CSL clubs to lobby for such measures to be discarded. Clearly, administrative authority over the development of football in China is a significant political chip, especially given the level of support from the uppermost levels of the Xi administration. It simply does not make business or political sense for the General Administration for Sport to allow authority over football to transfer to the Chinese Football Association unopposed.
In fact, there is an imperative for the General Administration for Sport to do what it can to retain some grip on football administration. Until 2015, the central government had endorsed a sports policy known as the “gold medal strategy”, which targeted sports where Chinese athletes would have a relatively easy time of gaining podium positions at the Olympic games. This strategy paid dividends: China topped the gold medal ranking at the Beijing 2008 games, and came second at the 2012 London Olympics. However, embarrassing performances by the men’s football and basketball teams led to the “Three Big Balls” policy, which calls for funding and expertise to be directed toward football, as well as basketball and volleyball. If the General Administration for Sport does not contest the transfer of power to the Chinese Football Association, it faces a significant drawing-down of its prestige. Under the Xi administration in particular, this would be bad news.
President Xi has invigorated the use of “central leading groups”, introduced by Chairman Mao, to centralise his authority and create competition toward policy goals. The Central Leading Group for Deepening Reform, chaired by President Xi, is the most powerful of these groups and played a major role in establishing the direction of the National Football Reform Plan. The transition toward central leading groups creates unease among the existing power structure – in this case the intersection of the General Administration of Sport and the China Football Association. The centralisation of power creates bureaucratic competition, with different agencies seeking to gain one of an ever-shrinking number of seats at the table. The announcement of CFA’s bureaucratic independence may be an attempt by figures at higher levels of the state structure to test the resolve of the GAS, dogged by corruption allegations. More simply, creating competition between two rival agencies should bring efficiency savings for a government looking to turn bold proclamations regarding the future of football in China into a glorious reality. Fearful of being left out in the shadows, the GAS naturally is looking to avoid being left out in the shadows. The suggested cap on player salaries and transfer spending is, however, unlikely to come to fruition any time soon.