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China's Dream to be a Soccer Superpower

China's Dream to be a Soccer Superpower

In April 2016, China revealed its ambitious plan to become a “world football superpower” by 2050. Xi Jinping is a known soccer fanatic; according to his former teachers at his old school in Beijing, Xi became a fan of the sport at a very young age. An unprecedented increase in investment into both the Chinese youth setup and the Chinese Super League proceeded the revelation of China’s plan. Although Xi’s desire for China to become a force in world soccer might partly stem from his love of the game, there are also political reasons for his newfound interest in the sport that warrants attention.

Xi has identified two major areas of improvement that could help China become a soccer superpower - the domestic youth development program and the Chinese Super League. According to the Chinese government, its plan to improve the youth setup can be split into three stages:

  • Stage One (2020) - Construct 20,000 specialized schools, 70,000 soccer fields, and have between 30 and 50 million primary and secondary students playing the sport

  • Stage Two (2030) - Construct 50,000 specialized schools, have the men’s team be one of the best in Asia, and have the women’s team be considered “world class”

  • Stage Three (2050) - Have hosted and won a World Cup.

In addition to improving the country’s youth setup, Xi’s government has encouraged increased investment in the domestic Chinese Super League (CSL), hoping that boosting the prestige of the CSL will generate newfound excitement about soccer domestically. The financial clout of the owners of Chinese Super League teams rivals those of the wealthy clubs in Europe; for instance, Guangzhou Evergrande is jointly owned by the Evergrande Group and Alibaba. The incentive for the owners to spend to earn some goodwill with Xi coupled with the fact Chinese clubs are unencumbered by the Financial Fair Play rules instituted in Europe, which mandates that clubs cannot spend more than they earn, has resulted in lavish spendings. In 2017, the CSL was the highest-spending league in the winter transfer window, spending $100 million more than the next highest spender, the English Premier League, on both high-profile players and elite coaches.

Even though China has a clear blueprint to climb the international soccer hierarchy, couple setbacks have hindered Xi’s progress. Regarding youth development, Xi’s government has faced stiff resistance from traditional parents who believe that increased focus on soccer would trade off with performance in school. Many parents still view a career in athletics as a second-tier career and believe that an academic pursuit is a more worthwhile use of time. In order to assuage the parents’ concerns, the Chinese government is planning to grant colleges the ability to accept student-athletes with below average scores in entrance examinations if their soccer skills can compensate for the deficiencies in their test scores. China has also faced problems in developing the Chinese Super League. By 2018, the exorbitant spending needed to convince top European stars to relocate to China had reached a level of recklessness and the CSL had become a bubble ready to burst. To control the resultant accruement of debt, the Chinese Football Association has implemented a transfer tax on foreign players, which is projected to have a deflating effect on spending. For example, Guangzhou Evergrande vowed to be “foreigner-free” by 2020.

Xi’s insistence that China continue to invest in soccer despite the hiccups suggests Xi sees a value in raising the country’s soccer profile. As stated above, although Xi is a massive soccer fan, the main reason why he is interested in improving China’s soccer standing is political. Xi believes that soccer can play a productive role in increasing the country’s soft power, or a country’s ability to align other countries’ interests with its own through non-coercive means. According to Joseph Nye, the political scientist credited with coining the term, this ability derives from the “attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” Emphasizing the friendlier aspects of a country’s image, a country can increase its appeal to a foreign country and its population, increasing its influence without the need to threaten the use of force. Over the past decade, China has steadily increased its investment in image-building, spending $10 billion annually to fund its soft power channels such as the Confucius Institutes, government-affiliated educational centers that promote Chinese culture. The overarching goal of amassing soft power is to better effectively counter the Western narrative that China’s rise constitutes a threat to the international order. Xi believes that countering this narrative is crucial if China wants to be recognized as a global superpower and sees investment in the country’s soft power campaign as a way to help convey that China’s rise is inherently peaceful in nature.

Utilizing sports, which possesses a unique ability to captivate an international audience, as a soft power resource is not a novel idea. One of the main reasons why countries bid to host the World Cup or the Olympics is because hosting a global sporting event affords countries an opportunity to display the country’s culture and people. Despite being in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons, many of the articles about Russia after the World Cup spotlighted the commendable job that Russia did as the host. Echoing the articles’ positive sentiment, Putin publicly stated after the finals that hosting the World Cup helped debunk some of the negative stereotypes about Russia. Xi, who hopes to host the World Cup in China by 2050, like Putin, recognizes the benefits of hosting a global sporting event. In 2008, governmental officials proclaimed that hosting the Summer Olympics was the fulfillment of a “century old dream,” an opportunity to showcase China’s progress in becoming a developed nation. China has also witnessed the resonance that a star athlete can have, as Yao Ming, a former NBA player, has become an unofficial ambassador of China.

Among different sports, Xi’s focus on soccer is understandable. Due to the sport’s unparalleled global popularity, soccer offers the most potent way for a country to accrue soft power. China is not the only country that has identified soccer as a resource to polish a country’s image internationally. Beginning last decade, countries in the Middle East began funneling money into clubs in Europe. For instance, Qatari Ownership acquired Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. According to James Montague, the author of "The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football's Super-rich Owners,” the investment the Ownership has made, which, since the takeover, totals 1.1 billion dollars, not only “adds to the power of PSG's brand” but also “helps to promote Qatar internationally.”

Through elevating the Chinese national team to a contender in world soccer and raising the profile of the Chinese Super League, Xi wants to raise interest in Chinese culture and ideologies. Similar to how the Qatari government is aiming to burnish their international image through investment into PSG, China wants to take advantage of the increased positive interest in China that they can generate with the success of its soccer team in the international stage. Although quantifying the beneficial effects of soft power in helping a country actualize its foreign policy objectives is difficult, Xi is betting that the newly garnered attention will be beneficial in counteracting the prevalent narrative that China’s rise threatens to usurp the established international order.