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What the Chinese Super League teaches us about China

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Forget the choreographed yawnfest wrapping up in Beijing right now. For any understanding of the Chinese model of development, one might as well behold a Beijing sunset, in all its glorious opacity, as try to make sense of the Communist Party’s smoke signals. Alternatively, one might ponder a prominent undercurrent – a meme, if you like – of Chairman Xi’s Chinese dream: football. As the 2017 Chinese Super League season draws – wheezing, limping, splint-shinned – to a close, here are some takeaways.

#1 In the grander scheme of things, the Chinese still aren’t all that interested in watching Chinese football. While the growing market in China for European football – notably the English Premier League – has put the latter’s marketing warlocks in a froth of activity, average attendances at CSL matches haven’t risen enormously in recent years, despite an ongoing whirlwind of interest from Xi and a regiment of newly-minted Chinese billionaires. In a nation of 1.4 billion, the average CSL game in 2017 drew around 24,000 spectators, which is actually respectable by European standards, but once you strip out a handful of top sides, that figure falls away significantly. An absence of quality on the pitch remains a factor, but so too does the fact that China only got a proper league going in 1994 and has now set itself the task of building a sporting imperium from the top down. The league lacks domestic heroes, folklore, a sense of history and – barring some emerging needle between Shanghai SIPG and Shanghai Shenhua – meaningful rivalries.

#2 The suspicion that there may be something pyramid-shaped about Chinese football has yet to be dispelled. Some of China’s richest men have put very large sums of money in, without the league developing any kind of sustainable revenue streams. Seemingly sold on the promise of jam tomorrow, China Sports Media Ltd (CSM) acquired broadcasting rights to the CSL in 2015, agreeing to pay 8 billion yuan (US$1.18 billion) in instalments over a five-year period. In 2016, the company farmed online broadcasting out to the tech giant LeEco in a two-year deal worth 2.7 billion yuan. Owing to a “cash crunch,” however, LeEco, in turn, sold its 2017 rights to the video streaming site PPTV for 1.35 billion yuan. Then, in July this year, CSM – after withholding its 2017 instalment – announced it is seeking to extend the period of its initial deal from five to 10 years, complaining that new regulations (see #3, below) from the Chinese Football Authority (CFA), a government supervisory body that is the largest shareholder in the CSL, hurt its ability to recoup its investment. Could it be that the projected subscriber base just doesn’t exist?

#3 The current campaign has been, in one respect at least, the proverbial season of two halves. In the winter transfer window, CSL clubs shelled out some jaw-dropping sums to acquire players that have been big names in the global game. Shanghai Shenhua’s capture of Carlos Tevez, regarded a decade or so ago as one of football’s finest strikers, in a deal that reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player, on an annual salary of $41 million, raised eyebrows among aficionados everywhere. SIPG’s signing of Brazilian midfielder Oscar from English giants Chelsea involved similar levels of cash and suspension of disbelief but at least brought on a player in his prime who could easily be lighting up a higher stage. Others leaving European football for China on tidy contracts included Belgian international Axel Witsel; another former Chelsea man, Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel; and Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato.

The CFA had, in fact, already signaled its dissatisfaction with the influx of money-grabbing foreign talents by reducing the number of overseas players teams can field in a game from four plus a substitute to three. Then, in June, came the coup de main – overseas transfers in the mid-season window would carry a 100% levy. If a club paid less than 45 million yuan ($6.63 million) for a player, the same amount again would have to be put into the club’s own youth system; if more, then a matching sum would have to be rendered unto Caesar, or rather the state’s football development fund.

The whole idea is to nurture more young Chinese players – a laudable aim, but one hedged in by commercial imperatives that create something of a Catch-22. If the league is banking on foreign stars, however superannuated, for box-office appeal, then what happens to the whole enterprise if they’re removed from the picture? It’s unclear if the rule will remain in place for next season or what impact it might have in the long run. But certainly, summer signings were significantly more mid-market, which is probably a good thing, as teams built around a small nucleus of bling-encumbered big-shots famously struggle to find balance. Tevez, incidentally, has been utterly useless, scoring just three goals in a meager 14 appearances to date.

#4 Similarly, it’s no longer enough just to appoint a European or South American manager and expect success on a plate in the CSL. OK, Guangzhou Evergrande have just sealed their seventh straight league title, and their second under former Chelsea and Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and SIPG have had a good season under another former Chelsea manager, Andre Villas-Boas – they will finish second in the table and got to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions League. But other foreign coaches have fared less well this term. Beijing Gouan showed Spaniard Jose Gonzalez the door in June, after just six months in the job, and Shenhua – who sit a lowly 12th in the standings – parted company with Gus Poyet (yeah, he used to play for Chelsea) last month. Fabio Capello, hugely successful at the helm of AC Milan back in the 1990s, took over at struggling Jiangsu Suning in June but has only just been able to ensure their top-flight survival.

#5 As one might expect given the mishmash of coaching influences in Chinese football – Italian, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean – and the lack of a tried and trusted formula for the national team, which remains calamitously feeble, there is still no identifiably Chinese style of football. It can be a task getting anywhere near Evergrande’s or SIPG’s Brazilians but games otherwise often seem to have a pronounced physical edge. There is also the occasional dust-up, with the fiercest of them this season coming in an SIPG-Guangzhou R&F clash when a couple of over-enthusiastic interventions from Oscar – for which he was subsequently, and quite unfairly, banned for eight matches – sparked a mass brawl. His team-mates Hulk and Wu Lei were also suspended later for wearing t-shirts supporting Oscar, and Villas-Boas earned his own sanction for an Instagram post that questioned his player’s treatment. The Chinese are all about the rule of law, you understand.

#6 Chinese football displays a glaring lack of transparency in terms of relationships between clubs, their investors, players, fans and the powers-that-be. In July, Jiangsu Suning’s owners – the retailers Suning – were as good as accused of using football to launder money by Chinese state TV. And in the same month, 13 CSL clubs were forced to deny that they were in breach of regulations in relation to unpaid player transfers, salaries or bonuses. Non-resolution, they were told, could see them kicked out of the league next season. Some issued statements denying irregularities; others said they were investigating matters. Then, miraculously, the issue just went away. Who paid what to whom, and when? Cui bono, apart from some young foreign men with tattoos and their agents? Who knows? Perhaps the skies over Beijing hold the answers.

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A toast to Xi’s crackdown on boozing

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

Donald Trump apparently once jeopardised a business deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires by declining to indulge in a drinking contest with them.

According to the unwritten ordinances of contemporary punditry, this preamble should lead – like all Trump-related preambles – into some veiled, or even unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism, and most crucially his hair.

Not today, though. No sir. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his tee-totalism. The man is mad, bad and dangerous enough without getting on the El Dorado. But look: as arguments for abstinence go, the prodigious drinking that attends a large part of both state and commercial activity in these latitudes is hard to beat.

Therein also lies the reason why President Xi Jinping ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month (June) brought a win in his efforts to curb what might properly be described as Russian levels of boozing in public life as cadres in Anhui province were told that, with the exception of events involving foreign affairs, or held to attract investment, there would be no more drinking at official dinners – otherwise known as “the office”.

The ban, designed to combat an ingrained culture of “working at the drinking table” according to Xinhua, came in the wake of an investigation into several deaths in the province among functionaries who had been too assiduous in their gan bei toasts and succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It also followed Xi’s move, shortly after assuming office in 2012, to place restrictions on alcohol at military functions. The practice of lower-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army endlessly toasting their superiors was held to be causing widespread liver disease and elevated blood pressure, not to mention chronic badger breath, among the officer class at large.

It’s my suspicion that listening to Party orders of business in Anhui province is not something that can easily be endured sober. It would be wrong to make light of this matter, though. Where politics and drink intersect it is customary to refer to Winston Churchill, and if there is one point about drinking on which Britain’s “Greatest Briton” is clear, it is that no-one but he could achieve what he managed on the drinking regimen to which he was devoted. “I have been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” said the man who liked to drink almost as much as he liked being at war.

The reality is that many who drink to excess in public life are tragic, second-rate characters, and it seems to me the archetype here is Boris Yeltsin, a Falstaffian figure who revelled in representing a tradition of alcoholism bridging Russia’s new era of capitalist autocracy with its Communist and Tsarist ones. As Bill Clinton tells it, he (Yeltsin) once got so bladdered on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and attempting to hail a taxi. He wanted to get pizza, see. As an adjunct to that, he was completely incompetent, sold off the state’s prize assets to gangsters and started two wars in Chechnya.

In the mainland, where in certain contexts it’s considered bad form to refuse a drink, there’s something of that buffoonish macho spirit of recklessness in the alcoholic brinksmanship of the baijou dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told the China Daily: “Many Chinese believe they can judge a person’s quality through observing the attitude and style of one’s drinking.”

It may be that Xi Jinping’s main concern is to see that his country’s officials do not dilute what the writer Yuan Weishi called their “wolf’s milk” – Yuan’s phrase to describe nationalistic indoctrination – with headier brews. Yet while the President’s crackdown on corruption means a little transparency here and there without significantly changing how things work, clearer heads in government as a result of reforming the country’s drinking culture might actually result in actions that make life better for people.


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What’s really driving China’s ambition to buy up Hollywood and win the World Cup?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The globalisation of the film industry is going to mean that “you can’t tell whether it’s a Chinese film or a Hollywood film any more.” That was according to Warner Bros’ CEO and Chairman Kevin Tsujihara last week as he heralded Sino-American co-productions now in the pipeline at Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture involving WB, Hong Kong broadcaster TVB and China Media Capital, the Chinese state-backed investment firm.

Perhaps you are a film fan. If so, how does this make you feel? Do you want to watch films that scramble all evidence of who made them and why – films with nothing to offer in the way of cultural specificity? You don’t? Well, that’s simply inconvenient. Chinese tycoons, in league with enthusiastic American partners, have their sights on establishing new global entertainment empires capable of capturing box office gravy in both East and West alike, and they want your money.

There’s nothing new about people in the entertainment business trying to maximise profits, you might protest, and you’d be right. What’s grating, I think, is the subtle suggestion that this coming together of cash, talent and storytelling – One Script, One Road, if you like – is just one big exercise in global cuddliness.

There have been other deals. Perfect World Pictures last month announced a co-financing partnership with Universal Pictures. Hunan TV is sinking US$1.5 billion into Lionsgate. Huayi Brothers and Fosun International are also investing heavily in American movie ventures. Moreover, the purchase in January of Legendary Pictures (Godzilla, Jurassic World) by the world’s biggest cinema chain operator (and China’s biggest private property developer), Wanda Group, for US$3.5 billion, has been branded “China’s largest-ever cultural takeover.”

U.S. anti-trust laws – look up the Paramount Decrees – are supposed to prohibit ownership of both movies and theatres. Wanda already owned AMC Entertainment, America’s second-biggest theatre chain. Why has nothing been made of this? Cynics might say it’s because the Yanks really, really want direct access to China’s booming box office, which is forecast to outstrip their own in the next couple of years. In that mission, however, they are also likely to find themselves dancing to the tune of the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a body whose latest set of rules, targeted at TV producers, amounts to a laundry list of prohibitions, including bans on content that is “to the detriment of national image [or] endangers national unity and social stability”, “exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society”, “sets a negative character as a main character”, or “breaks with national sentiment”.

It is inconceivable that the propaganda risks and opportunities associated with inviting Hollywood into the Chinese multiplex have not been weighed by Beijing. Equally unlikely is that Xi Jinping himself has not had a hand in urging Hollywood-bound cash outflows. Establishing a modern consumer society in China that bears at least some of the hallmarks of America’s is a recurring theme of his leadership. One need only consider cinema’s counterpart on Xi’s two-pronged fork of consumerist expansionism to forget the notion that this is entirely about “rebalancing” the economy, however.

That other prong is sport – or, more specifically, football (the proper variety, not the American version). Led by Li Ruigang, a man dubbed “China’s Rupert Murdoch”, in November the very same China Media Capital paid 8 billion yuan (HK$9.5 billion) for the broadcast rights to the Chinese Super League for the next five years. For their part, meanwhile, Wanda last year not only took a 20 per cent stake in the Spanish football club Atletico Madrid but paid US$1.2 billion for the Swiss-based sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media, a company that holds the exclusive sales rights to broadcast Fifa events from 2015 to 2022, including the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Until very recently, global interest in the CSL was trace to non-existent. As reported diligently by the Post’s own James Porteous, it has increased somewhat in 2016 as Chinese clubs have taken to offering players double what they’re earning in Europe in a frenzied spree of spending fuelled by that injection of cash from CMC – who are evidently betting on a huge increase in demand for domestic football content and increased interest in the game generally.

To that end, China plans to have 20,000 designated football schools by 2017, raising participation to unprecedented levels. Professing himself a fan of the game, Xi has also made it known he wants China to host a World Cup and ultimately to win one. To be clear, then, the objective is to become a global power in the world’s most popular sport.

In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson wrote about China trying to replicate the West’s historical va va voom in pursuit of prosperity, or “downloading its best apps”: competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, the Protestant work ethic and consumerism. The evidence suggests China has a few problems with its version of the third-mentioned, but in terms of consumerism, well, blockbuster movies and football as drivers of economic growth would seem like straightforward rips.

Only nothing’s as straightforward as Xi might wish. Just as Western moviegoers are likely to vote with their feet and stay away from the kind of films that adhere to SARFT’s worldview, Chinese football isn’t about to become exportable any time soon, and it’s far from certain that the subscription base needed to make the numbers add up domestically will materialise.

Matthew Syed argued in The Times (of London) the other week that Xi’s backing for football is about political indoctrination and control, that it is characterised by “top-down planning and the use of vast (unaccounted for) resources”, and that the paramount leader has rallied tycoons behind his cause in return for political favour.” “The attempt to rise up the rankings, and to stage the World Cup,” he wrote, “is testimony to the growing paranoia of China’s elite. Repression has escalated under Xi as the economy has slowed and propaganda is set to do precisely the same. In that sense, football is a mere pawn in a game of much higher stakes.”

It is certainly true that China’s leadership is facing multiple headwinds: slowing economic growth, shrinking employment, crashing markets, a growing suspicion that serious financial, economic and social problems are being papered over. And indeed, building up the nation’s leisure-industrial complex might be viewed, by the Marxist and the capitalist alike, as a useful expedient via which citizens / consumers can keep themselves (and not the streets) occupied. The official narrative is that buying Hollywood in order to censor it and demanding domination of a sport at which you are currently useless speaks of cultural confidence. It could just as easily be read as stemming from profound insecurity.


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When Xi meets the Queen – what won’t happen

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1865134/7-things-probably-wont-happen-during-xi-jinpings-state-visit-britain

The last time a Chinese leader was given a state reception in Britain, in 2005, Queen Elizabeth pulled on her smartest red hat and coat and put it to President Hu Jintao and his lady wife: “Have you come far?”.

The monarch’s civility was slightly undermined, however, by her heir to the throne – Prince Charles played truant, muttering off-stage about human rights and the Dalai Lama. The UK’s then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, meanwhile, spoke excitedly of “an unstoppable momentum” towards democracy for China. When the Chinese delegation left, the staff of Buckingham Palace were ordered to count the spoons.

OK, fine, that last bit was guesswork. It is impossible to know what goes on in the households of heads of state. It may be that Prince Philip, aka the Queen’s other half, aka Phil the Greek, hides spoons in guests’ luggage for his own sport. Still, now that Britain is desperate to become “China’s best partner in the West” – as the country’s Finance Minister George Osbourne put it in Beijing the other week – the parameters for any meaningful exchanges not involving the (proverbial) hoisting up of British skirts when Xi Jinping touches down in London later this month have narrowed.

In any event, here are just a few of the possible turns unlikely to be taken by events after plain-speaking Phil, 94, has broken the ice with a joke or two about the Japanese and fallen sleep.

1. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, will insist that in return for a) welcoming Chinese involvement in new UK nuclear power plants, b) turning a deaf ear to American concerns about the security implications thereof, c) jumping on board with the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and, above all, d) investing £700,000 (HK$8.2 million) to assist Chinese citizens who may wish to go on holiday to places in the north of England, British ministers do not in future expect to incur the Chinese state’s diplomatic wrath for talking to harmless old men from Tibet.

2. Mindful of the Chinese love of pork, Mr Cameron will then seek Mr Xi’s advice on how to handle those who write and publish materials alleging Prime Ministerial misadventures involving dead pigs. And how to stamp out seditious communications in general.

3. Mr Xi will thank the Prime Minister for dancing so nimbly to China’s tune but remind him, portentously, that always someone must pay the piper. The Queen’s bagpiper will nod sagely. China’s paramount leader will then thank his hosts for knowing when to “shut up about all that human rights crap, not like the Americans”, adding that Mr Osborne is a man of high principle who is respected throughout China and the world and that the two countries are now best friends forever. He will also promise to keep throwing chickenfeed at the minister’s pet projects and that the £700,000 will not be spent by officials on a night out in Macau.

4. Onto his second whiskey sour, Mr Xi’s charm offensive will continue with an apology to Britain’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, whose members were barred from entering Hong Kong earlier this year. He will blame the unfortunate episode on an administrative cock-up, praise Britain for giving the world parliamentary democracy and vouch that his administration approves of universal suffrage – for voting out contestants on Chinese Idol.

5. The Queen will ask after the well-being of Zhou Yongkang and observe that by contrast to the unfortunate former Minister of Public Security’s grizzled rug, Mr Xi’s own hair seems vibrant for a man of his years. She will then ask the President if he would like to pet one of her corgis.

6. Jeremy Corbyn, the new hard-left leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will attempt to engage Mr Xi in a discussion of Lenin’s 1904 pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and about the timetable for achieving socialism on earth.

7. Charles will announce “sod it, I never wanted to be a constitutional monarch anyway”, harangue Mr Cameron for being a pushover, and for doing so little on behalf of the endangered Patagonian Toothfish, let rip on China for being ghastly and appalling, and then finally settle in to some light Buddhist chanting, the noise from which will waken Phil the Greek from his slumbers.


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Undone by fake Lafite

You can read this post at SCMP.COM –

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1694736/fake-chinese-wine-common-now-hong-kongs-amusing-vanity-licence-plates

Becoming inured to conspicuous wealth is a quirk of life in Hong Kong. Stirred into distraction near my office in Central by a revving Lamborghini or Porsche, I might well remark to myself “there goes an expensive sports car”. Having heard tell of a VIAGRA and a SATAN, I might even scan its personalised plates for some momentary amusement. But, pace their owners’ intentions, after a while these thoroughbreds of our gridlocked precincts come to seem, well, commonplace.

A Sheung Wan sidewalk stacked with cases of fine Bordeaux, long the turbo-consumer’s tipple of choice in these parts, might therefore be calculated to induce a similarly world-weary reaction. Something less passive reared in me, however, as, on a mid-day saunter, I was forced to circumnavigate easily HK$2million worth of Lafites and Latours, resting on the journey from loading van to some out-of-sight restaurant holding cell. Mingled with my excitement – at the thought of liberating a case and working a crowbar on it for a lunchtime straightener since you ask, yes – was the nagging reminder that I have some Lafite-Rothschild 1996 doing absolutely nothing for me in a cellar in London.

I don’t make up the rules; I’m just gullible enough to have invested, modestly, in fine wine when I was told it would outperform everything else in sight. If European aristocrats, the uber-charlatans who rate wine growths and multitudes of newly-minted Asians conspire to create a big fat money market in the stuff, then carpe diem, no?

Well, that was a while back now. Of late, prices at auction, for Château Lafite in particular, have sunk to at least a ten-year low on the back of President Xi Jinping turning the screw on corruption, guanxi and extravagance – his trapping of tigers and quashing of flies. Now even the tigers daren’t drink Lafite, even if it’s mixed with Coca-Cola (terribly infra dig – who’s to say the whole campaign wasn’t motivated by embarrassment, besides Xi’s thirst for power?). Or at least that’s what’s reported; I do wonder what they’re drinking at Zhongnanhai these days. And the wolves – are they to be spared?

In truth, the bottom had been falling out of the whole business for some time, owing to another facet of capitalism with Chinese characteristics: fakery. In its upward march, the country has excelled itself in many spheres, but in the standard of its fakes it is in a league of its own. Sure, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis have been easy enough to detect, but the best of the wine fakers have been so successful that they’ve fooled serious investors, auctioneers, even oenologists. It’s set some people back, myself included, but what can you do? In the purity of the deception and in the denuding of European exceptionalism, it almost merits awe.

Nobody really complains about the mass-produced but largely convincing knock-offs of Western oil paintings you can buy from Shenzhen’s Dafen Village. But then faking it, or at least repetition, is by and large the name of the game in the art racket anyway. Fear of cliché begets cliché in a world in which artists and critics collude to take themselves in – convincing themselves that they are, respectively, purveyors and arbiters of originality. It’s all so much intellectual evasion, but so long as the price tag convinces the purchaser he’s buying Art, it ticks along. And so it goes with the Lamborghini and the Bordeaux – their prestige depends on faith in the power of money itself.

By the way, marked up in a restaurant a bottle of that Lafite will still cost you HK$9,500, easy.


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Xi’s bun show

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

From the diary of President Xi Jinping, as leaked to Post Magazine by shadowy forces:

“Dear diary, just can’t decide what to do with the spin doctors – they’ve made a sow’s ear of this pork bun shop business. I mean, yeah, it sounded like a great idea: ‘Get out there and meet the plebs,’ they said. ‘Then we’ll plaster it over the internet – well, the bits of the internet you allow – and you’ll come up smiling. Man of the people and all that. Bingo!

“Only they didn’t tell me about the song. Whose moronic idea was that? ‘Big brother Xi … You warm the hearts of the common people in the cold winter’. Jeez, it makes me sound all cuddly. All I did was fix the old kisser in a grin and stuff dumplings and stew (horrible stuff – backed me up no end) down it. Thought the driver would never honk for us to leave – we had to have words about that later. Now they’re all talking about the cult of Xi. Who wants that? Not me.

“Or maybe I do. Can’t make up my mind. Liyuan’s always telling me I’m cuddly. I tell her there speaks the cancer of bourgeois liberalism, but then she starts singing The Laundry Song (The army and people are one family/ Helping us to wash our clothes) and I let it slide.

“Anyway, the propaganda team are under surveillance. Why can’t they be more like Hollande’s guys? Nobody wrote a stupid song about him after he nipped out to see that woman about a dog.

“Maybe I should get a dog. Not a big scary one, mind, but nothing too cuddly either.”