Foreign media reports on the “emergence” of Chinese football on the global scene often talk about the passion that China’s president Xi Jinping has for the game, but is it really true?
There is an anecdotal story Beijing Guoan fans like to tell of Xi riding his bike to the north gate of Worker’s Stadium and buying his match tickets like all other fans in the mid to late 90s. As a Guoan fan I’d love to think I may have been standing in line behind the future president of China, but there’s no proof these stories are true and he was in Fujian for much of that time.
The “proof” we have of Xi liking football come from a number of photos of him kicking a football or the famous selfie with David Cameron and Sergio Aguero. Interestingly enough, the majority of these photos come from trips abroad where he is likely more loose and where a smiling Xi is far more likely to win soft power points. Domestically, these photo ops have been few and far between and he has rarely (if ever) attended a Chinese national team match.
Considering how weak the national team is, its no surprise he doesn’t want to tie his star to that dead weight. At the end of the day, whether he is a football fan (and the jury is definitely still out) doesn’t matter, football to Xi is about soft power (thus the above mentioned selfie).
As the constant transfer market stories show, football can help China capture the world’s attention in a positive way. While improving the national team is the ultimate goal, making the Chinese Super League the premier league in Asia is more realistic and satisfactory in the short term. It doesn’t hurt that this would make one more area in which China leads Asia. The passion of the game in Europe and South America is something Xi can tap into when visiting and also can help promote more connections, hopefully bettering the image of China in these countries.
Xi’s hopes for the national team to win the World Cup by 2050 also fits in with his “China Dream” philosophy and the aspirational desire to be a leader in Asia and globally. The rhetoric is something that the domestic audience likes to hear, whether he can deliver on this is a very different matter. After all, Xi is likely to step down in 2022, though all signs point to him remaining influential well beyond that.
China’s economy is struggling and there is a focus on sports and culture as two areas that are ripe for development and politically safe. That said, the current CSL investment is different from what the leaders are focused on when they talk about sports investment. Further, while foreign media likes to report on investment in the CSL as a way to curry favor with Xi, historically the focus has been on gaining ground with local/provincial government and for the most part that hasn’t changed. Chinese investment in clubs abroad also doesn’t fit as these moves are often focused on getting money out of China and gambling on quick profits, sometimes leading to bad decisions and negative stories.
There are other causes for concern as well. Currency flight in general is a major concern of the government and the mind blowing transfer fees and salaries being paid by CSL clubs may start to raise eyebrows. Indeed, in recent weeks there has been a bit of pushback from government. Stories of the “China threat” or behemoth in the transfer market also don’t help to advance China’s soft power goals.
Whether or not Xi himself is a fan of football doesn’t really matter, the moves made under his leadership, while the may not reach the “China Dream” of winning a World Cup on schedule, are sure to lead to longterm improvements in Chinese football.
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