China’s growing grip in world sports: image laundering or bilateral trade?


As of November 2019, the population of China stood at 1.435 billion. China remains the world’s second largest economy just behind the United States of America (US). These numbers make China not just the most populated country in the world but an economic superpower. 

President Xi Jinping is reliably rumoured to be at the heart of China’s aggressive use of sports to launder the image of his Communist Party and himself abroad. Knowing well that his nation’s economic growth is not as fast as the growth of her population. Thus, exporting labour abroad ,as Chinese companies and investors engage in the construction of sports facilities abroad comes in handy. China hence uses sports as a tool for soft world power domination. 

The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations won by Algeria and hosted by Egypt had Chinese companies like OPPO and Huawei playing a part in the tournament’s sponsorship. The Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, at the heart of a now well blown trade war between China and the USA is reliably rumoured to have used the tournament to market herself on the Continent and roll out their 5-G network.

State of the art sporting facilities.

African sports’ infrastructure remains a major beneficiary of Chinese construction. This is clearly manifest by observing previous editions of the Africa Cup of Nations’ hosts. In 2010, Angola hosted the 27th edition of the tournament. The matches were played in four venues; Estadio 11 de Novembro in Luanda which cost $231m, the Estadio Nacional do Chiazi cost $86m (Sh23.4b), the Estadio Nacional de Ombaka $118m (Sh11.9b) and the Estadio Nacional da Tundaval $70m (Sh7.6b). Everything was put up by Chinese construction companies. The cost of the above constructions amounted to around $500m (Sh50.4b) in Chinese loans. This is averaged to have cost more than what Austria and Switzerland spent on 5 stadia for the UEFA Euro 2008 stadiums. China offered ‘friendly loans’ to African nations in return for oil exploration and importation. Despite the huge dollar investment in the stadia, an interesting fact is that the average capacity of the grounds is less than 30,000 spectators with only Estadio 11 de Novembro having capacity to host 50,000.

In 2008, Ghana too was a major beneficiary of Chinese infrastructural investment. Two stadia were refurbished in time to host the AFCON and in 2017; Gabon had all their four stadia built by the Chinese. British journalist John Devine in his daily weekly podcasts insinuated that the number of African nations benefitting heavily from these investments also have massive deposits of oil and gas which the Chinese are keen to exploit.

Premier League’s Southampton FC, Wolves FC and West Bromwich Albion FC all have Chinese owners. AC Milan in Italy was once purchased by Chinese Billionaire, Li Yonghong, although he later sold it in less than two years. There is an increasing trend by Chinese billionaires in purchasing football teams abroad and investing heavily in them, not to mention supporting FIFA. This has greatly resulted in a number of European teams now having to travel to China for pre-season football tournaments.

Rafael Benitez, a European Champions League winner with Liverpool, was recently appointed manager of Chinese side Dalian Yifang. Oscar formerly of Chelsea FC, Marko Anautovic, Marouane Fellaini, Nicolas Anelka, Demba Ba and Carlos Tevez have all moved to China to play professional football at one time in their careers. All this in a bid by China to improve the image of its local league.

The US too has not been spared. The National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), The National Basketball Association(NBA) and the National Hockey League(NHL) all rank as the top six richest sporting franchises with the Premier League coming in at position three and Spanish LaLiga at fifth. Estimated to bring in more than $30b in revenue annually. These sporting entities too have tried to get a piece of the Chinese market.

The Houston Rockets’ 2002 signing of Yao Ming was one move that greatly excited the Chinese market. The NHL and NFL put up exhibition matches in 2017 to lure the Chinese market. Specifically targeting online streaming market in China.

The cost

“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Tweeted Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey. This was in support of the Hong Kong protests that have been ongoing. It earned him a backlash from the Chinese Basketball Association.

 “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China…” responded Morey later as he seemed to have backtracked on his sentiments and the NBA through its spokesman Mike Bass termed the tweet “regrettable”. Guess what? Yao Ming, former Rockets player is the Chinese Basketball Association chair. How ironic, the same man the NBA had used to market the sport in China is now ‘cutting ‘ links with their sporting franchise.

Arsenal star Mesut Ozil too was not left behind. He took to his twitter handle to offer his support to members of the Uighur Muslims in China and condemned Muslim nations over their silence on the issue. What happened next was a full blown reaction by the Chinese government. Ozil’s digital presence was deleted in China, his fan club with more than 300,000 members disbanded and termed illegal. The Arsenal game against Manchester City that was to air on the weekend of the tweet was cancelled by state broadcaster, the China Central Television (CCTV). Arsenal FC released a statement distancing themselves from the player’s tweet.

Welcome to the precarious nature sporting entities have to deal with especially in relation to China. 

The West have prided themselves as paragons of free speech and virtue; if so, why are they being bullied by the Chinese? Sportsmen have constantly been urged by sporting federations to use their platforms to champion for the good of society. Stand up against racism, anti-Semitisms and others have always taken well-known political stands with no repercussions. But why the backtracking when it comes to China? 

The whole world watched as NFL star Colin Kaepernick knelt as the US national anthem was sung. A protest against police brutality and racial inequality in the US. Will such freedoms be curtailed by China as they pursue dominance in sponsorship of world sports?

While this may be acceptable in China, many nations remain liberal especially Europe and the Americas. It will be interesting to see how the future of Chinese dominance in sponsorship of world sports will align to human rights and freedoms. 

Mesut Ozil has openly supported and befriended Turkey’s President Erdogan, a well know oppressor and violator of human rights according to some observers; but his support of the Uighur Muslims is commendable. Forcing him to backtrack, and a club like Arsenal FC immediately isolating themselves betrays the extent of China’s grip on world sports. This is not good for world sports at all, a nation cannot, and should not be allowed to bully voices of reason. 

Chinese Government is well known for their clamping on dissident views. The case of the Houston Rockets and that of Arsenal FC are just but a few examples of their intolerance. While this may be acceptable in China, many nations remain liberal especially Europe and the Americas. It will be interesting to see how the future of Chinese dominance in sponsorship of world sports will align to human rights and their freedoms. Is sport ultimately selling its soul to the Chinese?  

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