Sport, China and Diplomacy: Beware of your own reflection!

By Stuart Murray

Post Beijing 2008, sport in China has continued to gain considerable attention. The growth of football, the part that China has played in developing sporting infrastructure in Africa and the development of a national fitness programme are but three post 2008 examples of activity.

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Both theorists and practitioners have become quite animated about the potential of China’s burgeoning domestic sports economy, impending sporting hegemony, and its use of sport as a tool for projecting both hard and soft power abroad.

Popular assertions are common place:

• China is building 20,000 football academies;
• Its domestic sports economy is set to grow twenty percent every year for the next twenty years;
• 200 million people watched the Lakers/Heat game;
• Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics?

Some of this is true – many Chinese do love basketball – but some of this is illusory, has still to happen and is typical of outsiders thinking and projections about China.

This researcher recently visited Beijing and, typically, imported the attitude alluded to above. It had been eight years since my last visit and this time I went there as part of the Alan Chan Fellowship Exchange, to fulfil commitment to invited lectures, liaise with old and new colleagues and, primarily, gauge the interest in the theory and practice of sports diplomacy, a growing area of soft power research that has been utterly dominated by western people, clubs and nations.

What I witnessed and learned, and wish to share in this Academy of Sport blog is simple: our outside view of sport in China is problematic. Should lovers, evangelists and profiteers of sport wish to truly unleash the potential of sport in China then an inside perspective is really important.

In this contribution three observations from recent fieldwork are offered.

Sporting habitus

Firstly, China has a long way to go in terms of sporting habitus. Unlike the UK, or my second home, Australia, there are few wide, open and green spaces sanctioned for sport. In the many peregrinations around the capital, I did not see people jogging, or cycling (road bikes, that is), any football or rugby pitches, or swimming pools or tennis courts. My hosts assured me ‘they were there’, then pointed me to Olympic Park, The Bird’s Nest, and the Water Cube.

  • The Olympic Park (see below) is awesome- 1200 hectares of sprawling, meticulously planned sporting architecture and facilities.

It is inspirational to meander around the wide, open spaces of Olympic Park, dreaming of sport. However, the 2008 Games, as was intended, creates the illusion of an advanced sporting nation. Outsiders often forget that China is still a developing country with far more important matters to attend to than sport. One such matter is the smog mainly caused by China’s heavy manufacturing industry. It’s difficult to run around and do sport if you can’t actually breath.

The amount of ‘blue sky days’ have dramatically increased over the years but the smog alludes to a key problem for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): balancing ongoing economic growth with social wellbeing, health and sport. China is reaching the end of a rapid and epic period of modernisation and industrialisation (between 2011 and 2013, for example, China “used more cement that the US used in the entire 20th century”).[1] Sport will come in China, but it will not happen overnight. The idea of a huge, new market for sport is just that: an idea. Such a market does not yet exist. It’s not that the playing fields are empty. There are no fields.

Has a bag of money ever scored a goal?

Secondly, when thinking of sport in China, much has been made of President Xi Jinping’s love of, investment in, and aspirations for Chinese football. The most powerful leader since Mao, Mr. Xi has repeatedly stated his desire to improve the Chinese Super League, conducive to turning China into a “soccer powerhouse…that will ultimately lead to China not only hosting the World Cup but winning it.”[2]

$850 billion is to be invested over the next decade, foreign companies and labour continue to be acquired, and the Party is set build the fabled 20,000 Soccer Academies over the next five to ten to twenty years (who knows?).

Again, some of this is true. Mr. Xi does adore football (the Core Leader is a Manchester United fan, apparently), the Ministry of Education has plans for 20,000 primary or middle schools specialising in football by 2017, many foreign players, coaches and clubs are pouring into China, and, after the Qatar debacle, China has a very good chance of, at least, hosting a World Cup either in 2026 or 2030. However, can a nation buy success in football? The vast amounts of money poured into the game by oil and gas rich Gulf states, or the failed MLS experiment in the 1970s suggests otherwise. (Remember the New York Cosmos and Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto?) It will take a least a generation to produce the Mr. Xi’s envisaged army of 50 million school-age players and, even then, there is no guarantee they will be any good. Once more, time will tell. What is certain, however, is that pouring money into football rarely works.

As Johan Cruyff once adroitly noted, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”

Sports diplomacy with Chinese characteristics

Thirdly amongst the people I spoke with, there was much interest in sports diplomacy, that is, the conscious, strategic and ongoing use of sport, sportspeople and sporting events by state and non-state actors to engage and inform foreign publics, conducive to maximising “people-to-people links, development, cultural, trade, investment, education and tourism opportunities.”[3]

A growing area of theory and practice for western nations such as America or Australia, many of the Chinese academics, practitioners and students I spoke with seemed genuinely enthusiastic of developing a similar strategy, with Chinese characteristics. The 2008 Olympic Games, where, in a matter of weeks, China dramatically altered billions of public perceptions around the world, remains a very proud moment for China.

2022, when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, will prove another interesting sports diplomacy experiment. Watch this space! Many were also keen to remind me of China’s “stadium diplomacy”, where China has either built or donated stadiums or facilities in dozens of countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific.[4]

If we ignore mass, western media, an inside view confirms that China is already a master of diplomacy, a paragon of civilisation, and an exemplar of Bull’s International Society. Of course, the Party and nation, like any other party or nation, has its issues, but China is very well placed to develop into a leading practitioner in the use of sports diplomacy.

A land of sporting oddity and mystery

 For the outsider, China remains a land of sporting oddity and mystery. Sitting in your hotel room, flicking through the channels while craving sport, it is odd to note the absence of any indigenous Chinese sport being broadcast. It’s easy to watch European football or American grid iron but virtually impossible to watch a bit of wu shu (kung gu, to us outsiders), taijiquan (shadow boxing), xiangqi (highly addictive Chinese chess) or, my favourite, the strangely addictive qigong (deep breathing exercises). One wonders then, is the flood of western sport trampling traditional Chinese sport, games and exercise?

If so, this is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Alisports – the sporting arm of Jack Ma’s massive Alibaba group – has recently agreed to broadcast the FIFA Club World Cup, American NFL matches, International Boxing and, most recently, Oceans Sports & Entertainment to promote match poker in China. This all seems quite odd, and could suggest that many Chinese prefer watching sport to playing it, or that indigenous Chinese sports aren’t widely enjoyed. Again, generally, the Chinese do not seem, unlike the Europeans or the Americans, with their rough, combative sports, to need to sublimate conflict on the metaphorical pitch or stadium battlegrounds.

At times, as many visitors to the Middle Kingdom experience, Chinese history, culture and society seem that much more civilised than ours, more harmonious. I dare anyone to wander the Forbidden City at dawn, or the Temple of Heaven and suggest otherwise! Harmony is everywhere, even in their attitudes toward sport. “It’s why we like ping-pong,” Professor Zhang Qingmin of Peking University, the country’s leading diplomatic scholar, told me. “There is a net and a table in between us and our opponent,” he added with a smile.

The future?

Looking ahead, two things are absolutely certain. First, the CCP and not outsiders will shape the country’s sporting future, however uncertain or odd it may appear. Second, we westerners still fail to understand China (and I include myself, here). Even when promoting something as benign and positive as using sport as a diplomatic tool to promote peace or development, I was constantly reminded that China will determine its own future, be that political, economic, and sporting. Indeed, uniqueness, mystery, and independence are China’s great strengths.

As such, even when in country, we outsiders remain ‘estranged.’ We do not know China; perhaps we never have. Not long after I arrived, when I was still jabbering on about how big sport in China was set to become, a young Chinese basketball player said to me, in gentle, harmonious tones,

“be careful when you look in the mirror, for all you see is your own reflection.”

How very true. Outsiders seeking to understand the role sport could play in Chinese society, international relations and diplomacy would do well to remember this.

Stuart Murray is Associate Professor at Bond University, Australia and a Global Fellow with the University of Edinburgh Academy of Sport.

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