The city of Guangzhou, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), hosts an annual 500-year-old tradition. Flowers of all types are planted across the city’s eight districts in perfect time for Chinese New Year. This is the moment when crowds gather for the climactic point of the flowers blossoming. The locals bring their own to contribute to the stunning sea of colour flooding the city. The spectacular flower fair gives the Guangzhou residents the chance to adhere to a powerful belief: that the flowers represent their future prosperity.
The majority shareholders of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, China’s most successful football club, are honouring this belief by building a grand 100,000-seater football stadium shaped like a lotus flower and a sports complex along-side it. Evergrande Group, the majority shareholders, are headed by one of China’s richest men, Xu Jiayin, and could potentially build two more football stadiums. The price of the lotus flower stadium and sports complex is reportedly worth £1.36 billion. It is an enormous price for a monumental emblem.
Though, the stadium design’s significance extends beyond the city’s ancient tradition. The lotus flower is sacred within Chinese culture. It symbolises the holy seat of Buddha, the purity of heart and mind, honour, and long life. In the words of the considerable Chinese poet Cao Zhi, “Of all the plants in the world, the lotus flower is the most unique.”
The design is architectural spectacularism of the highest order. It will gain world-wide reverence and plaudits upon its completion. The beauty of the giant lotus will attract global football fans, cultural enthusiasts, and tourists. It will be a powerful representation of the hope the PRC has in making inroads into becoming an elite football nation.
However, integrating a cultural symbol within football and the spectacularism of it should not overshadow its other purposes. The lotus flower stadium will act as the primary showpiece of a major football industrialisation wave. The PRC is planned to have finished at least 12 new major football stadiums in two years. The Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily labelled it as, “a new era for Chinese football.”
The PRC’s new ‘era’ comes with a notable consequence: an additional arm of the totalitarian system implemented by president Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Simply through extravagant stadium designs, the CCP can utilise it as a propaganda tool and link it to their power base.
“Architecture is intricately tied to political power”, Molly Glenn, a scholar from Yale University, noted. “It provides a model for the system of structural thought used by a society to conceptualise the world.”
Professor Simon Chadwick put this into context by elaborating on how China is using “soft power” (the ability to achieve your goal through attraction) in football. “China is developing and becoming healthier and stronger,” said the director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emplyon Business School.
“There’s something about the iconography and symbolism of the stadiums, particularly the Guangzhou development. This is a huge stadium, incredibly striking design; pictures of it have been carried across the world and people are commenting on it across the world.
“It’s almost the soft power of stadiums. China is trying to use these hugely distinctive stadium designs as a way of attracting people and attention, of getting people to understand that China wants the same things that other countries want.”
What the PRC desire is the World Cup. In 2011, then vice-president Xi Jinping announced his “three wishes for Chinese football”: to qualify for a World Cup, to host a World Cup, and to win a World Cup. The official narrative for Xi’s love for football relates to his father, a former communist revolutionary and political party official. However, a friend of Xi’s told Chinese state media that Xi, then deputy party secretary of Zhending county in Hubei province, was furious to see the Chinese national team lose 5-1 to Graham Taylor’s Watford in 1983.
Now eights-years into Xi’s PRC, men’s football in China is still yet to make a significant dent. It is constantly overshadowed by the country’s achievements in other sports, like table tennis and gymnastics. The men’s national team’s greatest achievement is their two-time runner-up campaigns in the Asian Cup in 1984 and 2004. They have also made one isolated World Cup appearance in 2002 when they lost every game and failed to score. China has averaged 72nd in the FIFA World Ranking over more than 25-years.
This is contrasted to the development of the women’s national team. The PRC hosted two women’s World Cup’s, qualified for each one except for the 2011 edition, and were the runners-up in 1999. Over the last 15 years or so, their average position in the FIFA World Ranking is 12th.
China’s international record is not what you expect from a country that has an estimated population of 1.4 billion and the second-largest economy in the world. In 2009, then vice-president Xi Jinping identified China’s “relatively low” quality. “China must be determined to boost football” he declared.
Three years on, when he ascended into the presidency, Xi Jinping continued this dialogue. “We should seek other countries’ understanding of and support for the Chinese dream,” he announced, “which is about peace, development, cooperation and win-win outcomes.… We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
The country’s slow progress can be attributed to historical tragedies and modern issues. China in the first half of the twentieth century was gripped with revolution, civil unrest, barbarian behaviour, imperial Japanese occupation, and brutal civil war. It culminated in the Chinese Communist Party, led by its tyrannical leader Mao Zedong, consolidating its power as the country’s rulers in 1949. Social industries, like football, were not organised throughout Mao’s China. He preferred to pursue genocidal economic policies, a murderous Cultural Revolution, and the idea that China could rule the Earth.
Professional football was only introduced in 1994 – 18 years after Mao’s death – with the Jia-A League and the Jia-B League. Unlike in the west, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) does not independently govern its sport. Instead, when the Jia-A League was rebranded in 2004 to the Chinese Super League (CSL), the Chinese Super League Company (CSLC) was set up. The CFA has a 36% stake in the CSLC while each CSL team owns 4% of the remaining 64%.
However, match-fixing and corruption scandals followed. The corruption crisis was caused by low wages and government officials dictating the matches behind the scenes. In 2013, it was called an ‘endemic’ by The Guardian after consulting Chinese sports insiders. A player, who retired in 2009, said he would regularly get an offer of thousands of pounds from a gambling syndicate to gift the opposing team a win.
“Most of the time, it was the defenders [and goalkeepers] who got this kind of offer, because they could allow the other team to score,” he said. “Sometimes the whole team would get involved in match-fixing, but only in rare cases. Most of the time, you only need five players or fewer to accomplish the goal.”
The Ministry of Public Security initiated a large-scale anti-corruption campaign in 2009. It saw 50 high-level football officials, players, referees, and club managers being arrested in two years. Xi Jinping’s accession catalysed a further long-term anti-corruption ripple. According to state media in 2013, Xi’s anti-corruption drive, which otherwise is used for political purposes, led to 25 football officials, players and referees being banned for five-years and another 33 for life.
The anti-corruption crusade was only the beginning of change for Xi. The president introduced his four-step reformation programme which, on paper, aimed to achieve his ‘three wishes’. The project officially launched in 2014 with ‘The State Council’s Opinion on How to Accelerate the Development of the Sports Industry to Promote Sports Consumption’. This overstretched-titled reform essentially started the process of improving player fitness and health and increasing the PRC’s demand for the sport. The CCP wants at least 500 million people engaging in the sports industry and have the industry worth over $800 billion by 2025.
The second reform was followed up the next year. ‘The Overall Chinese Football Reform and Development Programme’ focused on implementing football into the nationalist and communist agenda. It aimed to enhance the sport’s patriotism, cultural relevance, expectations, and its ‘collectivism’ (the need to prioritise the group and not the individual).
By developing the football structure beside it, the CCP set short, medium and long-term goals. They targeted to improve amateur and youth football; to have the men’s national team as one of the best in the world and for the women’s team to return to the top; and to bid to host a World Cup, while increasing the competitiveness of the men’s team.
Another structural change was made because of this reform. The Chinese Football Administrative Centre, an extension to the state-run General Administration of Sport of China, was removed in February 2016. They had influenced, or even allegedly ran the sport, since 1995
The subsequent two reforms were initiated that year. ‘The Medium- and Long-Term Development Plan on Chinese Football’ is projected to finish in 2050. It outlines the need to progress health and fitness and its football economy. Additionally, the CCP aims to integrate ‘socialist values’ and in turn promote them, develop the ‘Chinese Dream’ and the nation’s pride, and inspire greater expectation among the PRC’s public.
Likewise, with the second reform, this amendment was broken down into three targets. The short-term goal, which was dated between 2016 and 2020, primarily concentrated on grassroots football. Their listed signs for whether the PRC had achieved this were: 20,000 football specialised schools, over 30 million primary school and secondary school children participating in football, and over 50 million people playing the sport country-wide. This decade’s goal is to establish the men’s international team as among the best in Asia and the women’s team amongst the best in the world. The ultimate achievement is for both teams to become world-leading powerhouses, eventually resulting in a World Cup triumph.
In parallel to the CCP’s short-term goal, they introduced ‘The National Construction Plan for Football Pitches and Facilities’. This reform targeted to expand China’s football infrastructure by having 70,000 football pitches. They wanted an average of 0.5 football pitches in areas of 10,000 people. In other areas they hoped to have an average of more than 0.7.
These reforms have complex purposes that are tangled within one another. On one side of the spectrum, the PRC is seeking global recognition. Success in gymnastics and table tennis does not have the same global presence as football. Even basketball, a highly popular sport China, does not weigh the same as football.
The South Metropolis Daily once displayed their fury for why football is so important to the PRC. “Dreams have power” the newspaper lamented, “and the irritating reality and lack of success of Chinese football threaten nothing less than the Chinese ability to dream of being a more powerful nation.”
On the other side, Xi is actively pushing forward his ‘China Dream’ rhetoric. He referred to it in his speech in 2012 and it became officially a part of the reform programme in 2016. Xi’s narrative is linked to collective nationalism; though, the centralised goal is, according to Xi, to realise “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.”
Football’s global lure, stature and attraction make it an important component to ‘rejuvenating’ China. The influx of nationalism, pride, soft power, anti-corruption, and Xi’s ‘China Dream’ narrative is the groundwork for a revolutionised football culture. One of which could propel them into football’s elite – a position they then can consolidate.
China’s current exclusion from football’s elite is a fundamental flaw in the psychological narrative the reforms have pushed. The PRC is obsessed with being a part of the global stage in every arena. Their omission from football’s global stage is a sour taste to the PRC and the CCP’s aim of football domination.
However, during the process of the CCP enacting its undercurrent of revolutionary reforms, the football world began to pay attention. It was not because of the internal juggling the CCP was undergoing. An overdrive of capital foreign and domestic investment invaded Europe. Clubs, leagues, and continental governing bodies were alerted.
Just like with the football stadium programme, China wanted footballs attention. They sought to flex their financial might so the sport’s elite recognised China’s arrival. The beast from the east was finally ready to compete in the game’s complex world of football economics and politics.