The transformation of Chinese football under the aegis of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Football Dream” (中国足球梦) illuminates the party-state’s domestic aspirations and modus operandi. The latest iteration in a long line of football reform plans is being used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a tool to serve broad economic and socio-political ends, including promoting public health, well-being, and active lifestyles; generating feelings of national unity and pride; stimulating middle-class consumption; inculcating social cohesion; encouraging patriotic citizenship; and forging a shared national identity. The utility of the sport as a vehicle explains why the Chinese leadership has invested significant financial and reputational capital in the top-down direction of football development. Yet, the competing motives of diverse organizations, institutions, and private commercial actors involved in the execution of a transformative reform program, and the agency of individual citizens, whether football fans, players, or consumers, mean the state cannot simply be a successful football industry and culture into existence. There is an articulation between the needs of the state and the public and private institutions that respond and contribute to state projects to advance their own interests. Studying this articulation, through the specific case of football reform, reveals the complexities of policymaking and politics in contemporary China. In their application of Appadurai’s (1996) work on cultural economy, Yu, Newman, Xue, and Pu (2017) examine how the coalescing of people, finance, images, and ideology create “football-scapes” imbued with “new systems of meaning, power, capital, and consumer identities from which the state, and sport therein, are articulated” (p. 4). Yu et al. (2017) is a compelling study of the role of football in China’s engagement with cultural globalization, and seeking to extend this pioneering work, we explore a more explicitly political dimension implicated in Chinese sport, namely the relationship between football and state-building, national identity, and citizenship. China’s engagement with football is complicated by its evolving status, first as a Communist country and subsequently as a reforming socialist economy, a rapidly modernizing country, and an authoritarian regime. There are similarities (and legacies) between China’s organization of sport during the Mao era and other Communist countries, notably the Soviet Union (Edelman, 1993; Riordan, 2007), and patriotism and propaganda are a feature of numerous Communist regimes’ treatment of sport, like North Korea (Lee & Bairner, 2009). However, reform-era developments in Chinese football have relatively little in common with post-Soviet states, where chaotic professionalization led to endemic corruption and the emasculation of domestic football structures (Molnar, 2007). Football in China is not an incubator of violent nationalism or ethnic conflict as it has been in other reforming socialist nations (Mills, 2009). Neither has football become a site for anti-state mobilization as it has in other developing nations like Brazil, despite sharing similar social conditions such as inequality and corruption (Goldblatt, 2014). Other authoritarian regimes have sought “soft power” gains through association with football, particularly countries in the Gulf (Thani & Heenan, 2017), and many countries have adopted policies to promote sport to tackle health issues and deliver elite sporting success (Grix & Carmichael, 2012). Other nations, notably Japan and the United States, have launched new football leagues and invested heavily in the recruitment of foreign expertise (Collins, 2006; Horne, 1999). Football in Europe and elsewhere is similarly no stranger to the involvement of political figures and a business–football–politics nexus embodied by individuals like Silvio Sullivan et al. 3 Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich (Doidge, 2015). While individual aspects of China’s football experience have corollaries elsewhere, taken as a whole, its experience is distinct from other nations. To anchor our analysis, therefore, we use the concept of symbolic power, a lens that helps us make sense of the totality of the Chinese approach to football by treating it as a “field-spanning” socio-cultural and politicoeconomic sphere. This article proceeds in three stages. We first present an overview of the role of football and sport through the history of the PRC, before analyzing current practices manifest in multiple policy documents and accompanying discourses and praxis that underpin China’s hybrid state-corporatist approach to football.
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