Economics and finance, International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

6 May 2020

The recent announcement of an enormous football stadium commencing construction in one of China’s biggest cities is a signal to the world that the country is on the road back to normal, Simon Chadwick writes.

There is a commonly expressed view in football that to become a leading goal scorer, a player needs to have a good sense of timing. Indeed, making the right move at the right time has been the hallmark of strikers from Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to Canada’s Christine Sinclair.

Given China’s global football ambitions, one might think the government in Beijing has been watching and learning from some of the world’s great players.

Perhaps a fanciful notion, yet the country has recently been displaying all the predatory instincts of Ronaldo and Sinclair. In particular, the release of images showing a planned new football stadium in Guangzhou has grabbed the attention of China watchers and football fans alike.

Dubbed the ‘Lotus Flower Stadium’, because of its ‘striking’ floral design, the Guangdong venue is set to become the world’s largest purpose-built football stadium. Due to open in 2022, the stadium will cost almost $2 billion dollars to build and be located adjacent to Guangzhou South Railway Station.

The announcement that stadium construction had begun on 16 April was clearly timed to send a message to the world that China is open for business again and returning to normality.

However, as much of the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the symbolism of images widely shared by the world’s media and across a multitude of social media platforms, suggests the announcement may have been more strategic than benign.

Many countries, particularly those in the West, are at least eight weeks behind China and its response to the pandemic. This time lag is providing an opportunity for government in Beijing to assert itself while other countries catch-up.

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For instance, much has been made of the country’s desire to host football’s World Cup, sooner rather than later. Some speculate that a Chinese bid is coming, which might see it hosting the tournament by as early as 2030. With potential rivals in pandemic lockdown, China is clearly seeking to strengthen its position with the Guangzhou announcement.

Already, there are several other football stadiums being built throughout China in preparation for the 2023 Asian Cup, though the Guangzhou venue is clearly a piece of statement architecture which signals confidence on the government’s part.

It will be no surprise if China secures the rights to 2030, especially as several Chinese corporations are already engaged in lucrative deals with FIFA.

At the same time, there is something intangible though no less powerful about the Lotus Flower. At one level, government in China is no doubt acutely aware of the reputational damage its country has suffered during the first four months of this year.

At this point, revealing imagery of a striking new stadium in which the world’s favourite game will be played is as much about soft power as it is anything else. Soft power is a game of attraction and engagement, a way of convincing people that a country shares the same hopes and aspirations as people in other countries do.

With stories continuing to swirl that Chinese government stalled in its early reporting of COVID-19, diverting the world’s attention and seducing people with images of a brighter future were presumably part of China’s game plan.

This isn’t the first time that China has used a sports stadium in such a way. Back in 2003, Swiss architectural practice Herzog and de Meuron was commissioned to design a venue for Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games. The outcome of this was construction of the now iconic Beijing National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest.

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Both the Olympics and the stadium were intended to herald China’s re-emergence on the world stage, and the Bird’s Nest was hugely symbolic of a stronger, outward-looking, more confident and ambitious China.

In this context, the Lotus Flower seemingly marks the next phase in China’s global development: bigger, stronger, bolder – a power project launched in the midst of a global crisis, when the country’s opponents are weakened.

Furthermore, if the Bird’s Nest stadium betrayed the traditional importance of food in Chinese culture, then a blooming Lotus Flower surely symbolises a flourishing China that is reaching its peak.

The last decade has been marked by a global penchant for constructing large, innovative, and intriguingly designed sports stadiums. Some of these venues have been intended to serve as revenue-drivers, the epitome of capitalist sports and their commercial intentions. Often, these projects have been instigated as a response to changing consumer tastes.

In the case of Guangzhou, the state is tellingly involved, though the stadium’s location next to a large railway station is no coincidence. Sure, it will make things easier for matchday crowds to get to and from games, but the Lotus Flower will also become a destination in its own right and will no doubt include entertainment, leisure, and food outlets for visitors  to enjoy.

China’s growing middle class and its increasingly sophisticated tastes will presumably be catered for in a way that Guangzhou’s existing biggest stadium – Tianhe – has been unable to. Based downtown, the 60,000-capacity venue was constructed in 1984 at a time when China was a very different place.

The Tianhe Stadium is home to Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, one of the Chinese Super League’s top teams. It was loaned to the football club in 2016 by the local government’s Sport Bureau, an indication of Evergrande’s importance to the state in sustaining China’s economic development.

Evergrande, the team’s title sponsor, is China’s second largest property developer, selling mainly to upper and middle-income buyers. Its founder – Hui Ka Yan – is one of Asia’s richest men. It is therefore no coincidence that Evergrande will be responsible for developing the Lotus Flower. No coincidence either that the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company – Alibaba – is a co-owner of Guangzhou Evergrande.

Yes, timing is everything and what is set to become the world’s biggest football stadium will witness many great players scoring many amazing goals, but the clever timing and bold nature of the project shows that there may be something more than football in the sights of China’s leaders.

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