Promote soccer for its real sporting benefits, not just as Xi Jinping’s vanity project

Cary Huang says it’s a shame the president’s ambition to turn China into a soccer powerhouse by 2050 is drawing attention away from efforts to address people’s real need for exercise and enjoyment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2016, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2016, 8:19pm

Once again, the Chinese Communist Party has demonstrated its penchant for state planning. A few weeks ago, the government unveiled its ambitious 13th five-year plan to transform China into a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020. Last week, it announced another grand plan, but with a longer time frame – turning China into a world soccer superpower by 2050.

China sets out grand plan to become world’s soccer superpower by 2050

The plan might be welcome in this soccer-loving nation; it came days after the national team narrowly avoided elimination from the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup, even though they still face an uphill task competing for one of four slots reserved for Asian teams.

Under the plan, the men’s national team should be in Asia’s top echelon by 2030 and among the world’s strongest by 2050.

But big questions have been asked about why soccer has received so much attention and been given such preferential treatment by the top leadership.

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Soccer has become the most-watched game in China only in recent decades, thanks to satellite broadcasting. But the “beautiful game” is far from being a popular sport for Chinese to play, due to the lack of pitches around the country, even in major cities. Table tennis is the most widely played, and is regarded as a “national sport” that symbolises character and pride. It is followed by badminton, basketball and volleyball. But none of these sports have ever received attention from the top leadership.

In economic terms, the scale of the annual 900 billion yuan (HK$10.8 billion) sporting industry, little more than 1 per cent of China’s total gross domestic product of 67 trillion yuan last year, is too small to attract interest from economic planners.

Instead, the leadership’s enthusiasm about soccer is all about politics: President Xi Jinping (習近平), himself a passionate soccer fan, has had it on his work agenda since taking office.

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China has had remarkable Olympic success, thanks to its Soviet-era training methods. However, soccer remains its Achilles’ heel; the national team has long been a source of embarrassment rather than pride, and is often used as a proxy to criticise the government. The team’s two recent draws with Hong Kong in the World Cup qualifiers infuriated many, with even party-run newspapers questioning why the world’s second-largest economy and most populous nation couldn’t field a competitive squad, which is now 81st in Fifa’s world rankings. Since first entering the World Cup in 1958, China has only once qualified for the tournament, in 2002, when it lost all three first-round games and failed to score a goal.

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For a long time, the party leadership has seen sport as a political tool to promote national pride and international prestige, and, by extension, the legitimacy of its rule. Thus, Beijing invested billions in selecting and training the nation’s best athletes from a young age to achieve its goal of winning medals, even though China lagged far behind many countries in mass sports participation. While the leadership now plans to help promote mass participation in soccer, the ultimate goal is to realise Xi’s wish: to qualify for the World Cup, host the event and, finally, win it.

The plan is also part of a well-staged publicity campaign to feed Xi’s enthusiasm for soccer into an everyman image that he has cultivated since he took office.

What is sorely needed now is investment in various public sports facilities, not just for soccer, to allow more people to participate in and play, in an effort to promote physical health and give them joy, rather than focus on what the national team’s results would mean for politics.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post