President Xi may have grand plans to turn China into a global football powerhouse, but is his plan being heard on the streets of Beijing? In the first of three special pieces, Simon Chadwick reports on the sports battle for hearts and minds in the country.
Communications experts often refer to ‘noise’, which they identify as being essentially anything that disrupts or interrupts the effective communication or receipt of a message. The message coming out of China over the last two years has been that football is important to the country and that President Xi Jinping has a vision for the Chinese men’s national team to win the World Cup. Right now, though, there is a lot of ‘noise’ threatening Xi’s aspirations.
The most obvious noise one encounters upon arrival in summertime Beijing is the intense sound of crickets. The chirping of millions of insects in the heat, including those kept by residents for good luck, seems a fitting metaphor for the trouble facing Chinese football.
On my recent visit to Beijing, the ‘noise’ was deafening. Rather than Messi or Ronaldo or, for that matter, Arsenal and Chelsea (who were due to play a friendly game in the Chinese capital) welcoming me to the Middle Kingdom, the Golden State Warriors’ star-man Steph Curry was the first athlete I saw. This is a problem for football, just as it was 20 years ago when I first started writing about sport in China: the country remains a predominantly basketball nation.
In downtown Beijing, the ‘noise’ continues in every sports store one visits. The number of such stores in the city is mind-boggling, the concentration of them surely being among the highest of any city in the world. Every block seems to bring a glossy combination of Nike and Adidas outlets, which fight for retail space with Chinese brands such as Li Ning and Erke. The subtle psychology of these outlets is telling.
Two sports dominate the shops: basketball and running. If a shop’s stock is an indication of consumer preferences, then the United States’ National Basketball Association trumps England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga every time.
Similarly, as China’s new, fast-emerging and sizeable middle-class becomes both more affluent and more active, its collective mind is focused on the healthiness, freedom and individuality of running. I saw more in-store promotional banners showing British distance runner Mo Farah than I did global football stars such as Lionel Messi.
It is not easy to run around Beijing nor to shoot some hoops in the city; although both can be managed with effort. However, population density is so great and urban planning so focused on real estate development that even a full-sized five-a-side football pitch is a rarity (indeed, I cannot recall having seen an eleven-a-side pitch during my time in Beijing).
When people are not running or following basketball, further ‘noise’ is generated by shopping, commonly for items that have no connection with sport. As someone in the sport industry commented to me, China’s urban population “eats, sleeps, works and shops; it doesn’t have time for watching or playing sport”. Such attitudes probably reflect the prevailing conditioning of Chinese youngsters, perhaps the biggest ‘noise’ of all.
As the world’s football community observes football’s Chinese revolution, it may not realise that arguably the biggest disruptive influence on the sport’s development in China is mathematics homework. Whereas many young people in Europe and North America will routinely engage in after-school sports activities, there is no such culture in China. Instead, youngsters are expected to put-in extra hours focused on achieving good grades in subjects such as Maths, Science and, increasingly, English.
The overwhelming view I encountered was that playing football does not bring academic success, not least because sport historically has contributed nothing to a student’s university entrance scores. In fact, in many cases, sport has been the safety-net for underachievers when all else has failed. Cracking this conundrum is, therefore, a major challenge for the Chinese government, not least because the country’s hard skills are well-developed, whilst its soft skills are not.
A common stereotype of young Chinese people is that they are good at maths (a hard skill); however, when it comes to independent thinking, individual autonomy, decision-making and creativity (all soft skills), the country is found wanting. If true, this is a problem that potentially hinders China’s further, long-term economic development. It’s a problem which Xi apparently believes can be addressed through the promotion of sport, specifically football.
A further, not insignificant, issue for China to grapple with is that football is a team sport. Whilst popular global notions of the country often see community, cohesion and homogeneity, in reality, China is an increasingly individualistic society. This is bound-up not only in expectations of individual success at school but also in the importance of family (as opposed to one’s classmates, co-workers or team members).
Football thrusts individuals into situations where they must sacrifice themselves in favour of others, or they must become embedded in teams where personal achievement is far less important than the group’s success. Accepting such situations is an anathema to many people in China, although some members of Chinese society (particularly among the middle-class) recognise that the country’s attitudes need to change.
Perhaps the country’s growing affluence will ultimately effect change. After all, middle-class parents are also concerned about the increasingly sedentary lifestyles of their children. Expectations of academic success combined with changing diet, console gaming and the country’s obsessive use of social media means that too many young people are not moving enough. Xi’s football proclamations have therefore been timely, and probably no coincidence when viewed alongside the growing number of parents who see the sport as a means through which to preserve the health (physical and psychological) of their kids.
Visit Beijing in the summertime and you cannot fail to miss the crickets making a noise. But there are a lot of other ‘noises’ one may never hear which nevertheless are profoundly affecting the development of football in China. Whether the country’s government will be able to silence them remains a moot point. Instead, it could be that football needs to cut-through the clutter by making a bigger noise itself.