Publication: “Chinese Football in the Era of Xi Jinping: What do Supporters Think?”

Publication: “Chinese Football in the Era of Xi Jinping: What do Supporters Think?”

Chinese football is a largely neglected research object in social science research on China, although Chinese president Xi Jinping himself stated that „[f]ootball is the most popular sport in the world and there are over 100 million football fans in China alone“. Recently, however, the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs published an article by Ilker Gündogan and Albrecht Sonntag called “Chinese Football in the Era of Xi Jinping: What do Supporters Think?”. The study aims to illustrate how the Chinese football community perceived the newly launched national football reform programmes in the People’s Republic of China.

The article starts by giving the reader a brief introduction to Chinese football history, explaining that, despite being very successful in other sports (especially individual sports), China has failed to reach the same level of competitiveness and success in football. The men‘s national football team has only once qualified for a FIFA World Cup and is struggling to catch up with the women‘s national team. Furthermore, corruption and fraud caused detrimental effects on the reputation and prominence of the Chinese football leagues. Even before Xi Jinping came to office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, he has expressed a strong desire to change the poor state and lousy image of Chinese football. For instance, in 2011, he revealed his “three wishes for Chinese football”: to qualify for a World Cup, to host a World Cup, and finally to win a World Cup. And, after having taken office as president in 2013, the Chinese political leadership released a “comprehensive” national football development strategy in order to “improve physical health, enrich cultural life, promote the spirit of patriotism and collectivism, develop the sports industry” as well as to meet “the new popular expectations by realising the dream of becoming a powerful sporting nation”. To achieve these goals, a centralisation of national football governance structures was enforced by state authorities, meaning that “the political leadership of the PRC has shifted decision-making powers in Chinese football […] to an even higher level of authority; this, in turn, stresses the degree of importance attributed to football by China’s contemporary political leaders”.

The implications of football play an essential role in China‘s political efforts to develop “the people’s game”. Football today serves as a consolidator of national identity not only in China but also in many other countries. Historically, this facet has been especially highlighted in the context of European and Latin American communities, which means that the game’s propensity to serve as a stabiliser of national identity can be applied to many different “varieties of nationalism” around the globe. As Gündogan and Sonntag put it: Football was considered historically “as a mock confrontation of nations”, focusing on “territorial layout and battlefield terminology (‘attack,’ ‘defence,’ ‘wings,’ ‘shots,’ ‘captain,’ and the like) [that’s why different political] regimes were tempted to instrumentalise the game as a way of consolidating national identities”. It is therefore not too surprising that in particular national football teams “are heavily charged with symbolic value” and consequently “trigger profoundly nationalistic identification patterns based on feelings of belonging, perceived singularity, and national pride”.

A notable feature of this study is that, in comparison to some other studies on Chinese football, the results are not merely based on hypotheses, but provide original data. The authors created an online survey with 40 questions in order to examine the attitudes of Chinese football supporters, with particular emphasis laid on issues of nationalism and governance. The survey was disseminated via Chinese social media channels such as WeChat and Sina Weibo, and the responses of 2,499 survey participants from all over mainland China were taken into consideration. Some 1885 respondents completed all 40 questions.

The results suggest that “[g]iven the place that football tends to occupy in the lives of those who consider themselves ‘supporters,’ it is coherent that the survey participants felt concerned by a reform programme that is directly targeted at their passion and is thus likely to have an impact on their everyday lives”.

Although the survey confirms that most survey participants identify with the Chinese national team and emotionally react to certain symbolic elements and behaviours, only very few respondents are satisfied with the performance of the Chinese men’s national football team (1.6 per cent). Moreover, a significant 80 per cent of respondents expect that the Chinese men’s national team will not be able to overtake those of Japan and South Korea in the FIFA World Ranking over the next ten years.

Both in several media reports and the official documents, the personal preference and fondness of President Xi Jinping for “the beautiful game” were repeatedly emphasised. The survey participants were asked what, in their opinion, were the main motivations behind the reform and development efforts vis-à-vis Chinese football. The responses reveal that a large majority of respondents perceives the reforms as a response to a public demand (80 per cent) and an attempt to raise China’s soft power on the international level (59 per cent), very much in line with the officially stated goals in the reform programmes.

The complete article and survey questions can be found here (free access): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/186810261804700104

Charlotte Dirks

Charlotte Dirks is a research assistant in the department of East Asian Studies at Ruhr University Bochum.
Charlotte Dirks
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