Former soccer commentator Li Chengpeng makes a political pitch
For Li Chengpeng, the transition from football commentary to withering critiques of society was easy, given how much the two have in common
Soccer commentator turned social critic Li Chengpeng thought he was in trouble when a policeman stopped him at Chengdu airport on his way to Hong Kong last week.
But instead of being subjected to red tape or harassment, as the author and prolific microblogger expected, the officer turned out to be a fan who enjoyed Li's books.
Li has become a hero for Chinese liberals and a hate figure of leftists over his transformation from sports journalism to social commentary. His recipe for success has been taking the thrill and punditry he learned in sports coverage to the dry arena of China's political debate.
He has emerged as a celebrity gongzhi, or public intellectual, in the online sphere. The huge influence of his microblog, which has more than seven million subscribers, reflects the sheer scale of the political debate taking place online in the mainland.
"I am a patriot, and I love this country, but I have to remind myself not to become a nationalist," he said at a talk at the University of Hong Kong last week. "Football has international rules and no national characteristics. But I have discovered that China's football and China's society today are similar," he said, drawing a parallel with the corruption he helped expose in the sport.
"A game's result? Everyone knows it already," he said. "Who is going to appear in next season? We already know. Who is the enemy? We know that, too."
Li's interest in football started during his early years in Hami , an oasis town in the northeast of Xinjiang known mostly for its melons and grapes. "It was just too windy for other sports," he recalled.
Soccer made him a national celebrity. He worked his way up from a football reporter in his mother's hometown of Chengdu to Guangzhou and ultimately as a World Cup commentator at the statewide broadcaster, Chinese Central Television (CCTV).
Li's conversion to activism came after joining rescue efforts in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He was among those who criticised the shoddy construction of school buildings in which untold numbers of children died.
In 2009, Li co-authored an investigative exposé on football match-fixing that became a best-seller and lifted the veil on widespread corruption in the sport.
He became a divisive figure in 2011 when he confirmed his intention, first reported by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yu Jianrong on his weibo, that he would run for a seat in the National People's Congress, China's parliament, as an independent candidate for the Chengdu constituency.
With the help of a "group of old tai-tais" - as he called his mother's friends - Li mobilised supporters and stationed them outside the election office all day to make sure that his application to be a candidate was not overlooked.
"We are waiting for the superior organs to issue the necessary documents," was the official refrain Li heard every day until the night before the election.
Li went to the office first thing on election day, only to be informed by a guard that the election had already taken place - at 2.30am. Needless to say, Li was not elected. He hasn't decided if he will run again.
Li estimates that his seven million followers on Sina Weibo include two million staunch supporters, just as many outright opponents and perhaps a million so-called wumao, internet commentators paid 50 fen (HK63 cents) for every post decrying government critics.
While he insists that no "special group should be treated like untouchable saints", his main criticism of the online debate among public intellectuals is its "lack of logic".
"When I say we have corruption in China, then people say they have corruption in America too. What does corruption in America have to do with me?" he said. "But if our premier says that we will fight corruption, then these people complain about spitting in public."
Criticism of Li has occasionally turned violent. In January, he was punched in the head and had a knife, fortunately still in its box, thrown at him at a book signing. He later began wearing a knife-proof vest at readings of his collection of commentaries, The Whole World Knows, released as SmILENCE in English.
Li recalled the experience of subjecting the book to the required censorship.
"After I sent my transcript to the publishing house, I realised they had some kind of software that looks for and alters key words," he said. "They swap 'citizens' with 'the masses', 'constitution' with 'relevant regulations'."
For leftists, like commentator Sima Nan , Li's irreverent pieces place him in the ranks of a "rumour alliance" who try to foment unrest for the sake of boosting their online following.
For Global Times editor Hu Xijin , "people like Li [are ] the target of stability maintenance".
"Rumours have become the tools of trade for some people," Ran Xiang, one of Li most vehement leftist critics, said.
Li counters his critics by saying that the only objective of their attacks is "to preserve this system's illegitimacy".
"Many people within the system, including some high-level officials I have talked to, know that democracy is a good thing," he said, adding that without freedom of speech "there is no democracy".
"Many within the system are liberals," said Peking University scholar Xiong Wei . "But that's not commonly seen thanks to the party's propaganda department, which controls the public debate."
But there is little sign of Li being silenced. In January, the octogenarian poet Liu Shahe joined him at a book reading in Chengdu, where Li wore a black mask in protest because he wasn't allowed to speak. "Just keep writing," Liu told him.
LI AND HIS TIMES
1968 Born in Hami, Xinjiang
1979 Moves to Chengdu, Sichuan
1986-1990 Studies literature at Sichuan Normal university. Goes on to work as a sports reporter for the Chengdu Business Daily and Football Daily
2007 Publishes You Are My Enemy
2009 Quits football commentary
2010 Co-authors Behind The Scenes of Chinese Football
2011 Published Cola Li Fights Demolition and The Story of Cola Li's Search. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Yu Jianrong announces Li's candidature for the National People's Congress
2013 Publishes The Whole World Knows