The Chinese Super League: the state’s attempt to refresh a slowing economy

Featured image courtesy: Adrija Ghosh. Check out more of her work here.

Before beginning, I think it is pertinent to clarify that this article, and all its assumptions and estimations are based on observations of the top-tier leagues in general. It is important to realize that the same is at best dissimilar and far more likely untrue for any and all lower leagues in the tiered league systems so generally prevalent in football.

The power (and hence desirability) structures of football align, for the most part, concurrently with modern, postcolonial political power structures. Thus we see a necessary Eurocentricism in the preferred destinations of footballers worldwide. And given the hegemonizing and invisibilizing tendency of this label of Eurocentricism,it is perhaps more pertinent to call this West-Eurocentricism, given that most football players past a certain threshold of skill and ability, when wishing to move to Europe, aspire to leagues not further east of Germany and not further north of Britain.

If a football player is from that part of the world or has made it to that part of the world, their mobility during the prime years of their careers are more often than not spent circulating around the leagues of the region. For several intersecting reasons, this has been the established structure of the post-Cold War world, the year 1990 a convenient point of entry, given that this would formally be the year of the Taylor Report, cementing certain infrastructural standardizations which necessitated the hiking of all other standards surrounding football operations, which would draw better players, which would draw larger crowds and collectively better broadcasting rights packages, and thus raise operating revenue.

This is of course the beginning of modern west-European footballing top-tier leagues, and it has, currently, like most of the systems in the throes of late-stage capitalism, on the verge of exploding. However, this is simply introductory. We are not attempting to analyse the intersectional factors of top-tier west-European footballing leagues which will lead to an inevitable decay. We are, instead, look at the very recent disruption to this near-absolute power-structure in the 2010s.

The dragon rears its head

It is a truth universally known that the combination of financial conditions and those of desirability would mean that no West European football club needs to sell the players that they have signed to a club outside Europe unless they want to. In this situation, Dario Conca’s 2011 transfer from Fluminense to Guangzhou Evergrande should have rocked several boats but for the Eurocentric lack of interest in such petty happenings. Conca left Fluminense on a €203,000-a-week contract, propelling a moderately successful, uncapped Argentine to becoming the sixth highest paid footballer in the world. One might begin to recall here the boom and bust of the Russian league, with the now-notorious Anzhi Makhachakla managing to net some of the best-known names in world football, or the tendency to become a retirement league like the MLS.

China seems very aware and wishes to categorically avoid such labelling. They seem to have entered a phase two of sorts where they not only increase player wages, but have begun bidding for players already settled in top European sides. The 2015 and 2016 transfer windows have seen the financial power of Chinese clubs beginning to affect Europe, where they have been able to bring in players like Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Ramires and Freddy Guarin, all established at clubs regularly participating in the UEFA Champions League, a factor commonly seen as a marker of footballing ambition among players. This has seen a spending of €90 million on just these three players, to say nothing of at least another €40 million per year in their combined wages.

Guangzhou Evergrande, 2013 Asian champions. Photo: “WKDx417”; 9 November 2013. (This image is now in public domain)

If we need to ask why China spends so much and continues to do so in its footballing industry, there is but one answer: economies. What we must examine are the jigsaw structures within which the demand, supply and systemic cause for the flow is.

Examining football’s place in the Chinese economy

It is perhaps telling to note what Conca’s coach at Fluminense Abel Braga had to say of the transfer: “This is a good offer for the club and perhaps adjectives will not be able to describe what it represents to Conca. It will allow his independence and that of his family in two and a half years.” This will also necessarily explain why most players aspiring to the Chinese league are from or/and play in economically backward countries and a flow of slightly lower tier players looking to double, triple or quadruple their earnings without having to necessarily raise their level of game to European standards.

More money for less effort is the hypercapitalistic ideal, and top-tier football is one of the most marked examples of international hypercapitalism. As we begin to process that a moderately tested 23-year old is likely to be transferred between two top-tier clubs for €120 million, we can no longer doubt this fact. If we must compare, it is perhaps well noted that construction of the Juventus Stadium itself cost €120 million when the deal was struck six years ago. Even having adjusted for inflation, that amount would now stand at €126 million, a mere €6 million difference, which is still enough to transfer the services of a player in or from lower leagues (both division-wise and country-wise).

The system:
With China’s manufacturing-driven economy actively shrinking over the past year, it might be surmised that Xi Jinping and the Chinese government had foreseen this slowdown and began investing in the sporting and entertainment sectors as new hubs of economic growth. To take a single example, Deloitte reports that China is on course to become the biggest film market by 2020, beating the North American market. With the blessings of the government and a certain amount of investment, private and state-owned companies have begun to heavily invest in these two industries, with football being the biggest beneficiary for the latter. And it is not as though the two are unconnected, with the broadcasting rights being sold for $1.2 billion for a five year deal by China Media Capital, with the state’s blessings, curiously outbidding China’s own national broadcaster, CCTV (the irony of the abbreviation is not unnoticed).

The demand:
With this system in place, it is only natural that footballers will be considered investments in ratcheting up the visibility factor of Chinese football. Let us note the owners of each club that will be participating in the 2016-17 Chinese Super League —
Beijing Guoan whose majority shareholder is the CITIC Group, a state-owned investment company, mostly involved in banking and real estate; Changchun Yatai backed by, yet again, a state-owned enterprise, very prominent in cement manufacture and property development; Chongqing Lifan currently under the control of the Lifan Group, a public company which deals in automotive manufacture; Guangzhou Evergrande perhaps one of the two best-known Chinese clubs and the richest to boot, owned by the Evergrande Real Estate Group and Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, both private companies with state ties; Guangzhou R&F owned by Evergrande’s rival real estate developers, the R&F Group, again a company with state ties; Hangzhou Greentown, again, owned by property development company Greentown China; the newly promoted but very ambitious Hebei China Fortune owned, once again, by a property development company, Fortune Land Development; Henan Jianye owned by only a slight variant of the theme, a construction company in particular, the Jianye residential group; Jiangsu Suning owned by the extremely rich Jiangsu Appliance Group, part of the Jiangsu Commerce Group, one of the largest, most powerful companies in the country; Liaoning Whowin possibly the lowest profile team, owned, as they are, jointly by the Liaoning Sport Technology College and the Hongyun Group, another real estate developer; Shandong Luneng owned by the Luneng Group, a subsidiary of a subsidiary to the State Grid Corporation of China, the country’s power supplier and the second largest company in the world; Shanghai Greenland Shenhua (the other well-known club, considering the attention it received in managing to sign Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka after their stints with Chelsea) owned by property developers the Greenland Group; Shanghai SIPG owned by another extremely wealthy, blue-chip company, the Shanghai International Port Group; Shijiazhuang Ever Bright owned by real estate developer, the Hebei Ever Bright Real Estate Development Company; Tianjin TEDA owned by the Tianjin TEDA Group, a state-owned conglomerate in the business of garments and pharmaceuticals, among others; and finally, Yanbian Funde owned by insurance and investment company Funde Holdings.
A pattern is quite obviously in place. Between state-owned companies and real estate developers, it is in every owner’s best interests and often their area of expertise to involve themselves in infrastructural development around the footballing world, to provide a different space for the creation of jobs, being an alternative to the already overextended sector of more general infrastructure within the Chinese economy.

The supply:
Mostly footballers who are looking for a massive payout in the prime or nearing the end of their careers. While the sporting quality itself is not very high, the sheer amount of money available gives the league an artificial desirability to those who look at the sport as any other profession. It is not hard to anticipate why some ‘star players’ chose the move: Burak Yilmaz, formerly of Galatasaray joined Beijing Guoan and saw his wages almost treble from an annual €2.8m to €8m; Atletico Madrid’s Jackson Martinez now earns €12.5 million a year at Guangzhou Evergrande, which one can conservatively say has trebled, and more realistically estimate has quadrupled his wages at Madrid; Ramires, formerly of Chelsea, earns a shade lower at €12 million a year at Jiangsu Suning, definitely trebling his €80,000 per week deal at the English club; Ezequiel Lavezzi, no doubt handsomely paid at Paris Saint-Germain, should still be close to doubling his salary at Hebei China Fortune, where he earns €20.5 million a year. And this is only scanning those formerly of the top European leagues.

Didier Drogba, Giovanni Moreno and Nicholas Anelka take the pitch for Shanghai Shenhua. Photo: “Alexchen4836”; 28 July 2012. (This image is now in public domain)

Relatively unknown South American and African players abound, earning massive multiplications on their previous wages in an economy that is still the world’s second largest and is looking for avenues to invest in. The pattern is not difficult to follow. Barring the odd Israeli or Australian, none of the players are from the top fifty economies of the world based on per capita GDP. Every large payday secured implies economic upliftment for the self, the family and possibly the community, earned from an economy with money to burn.

Football in China is necessarily growing at an incredible pace. The Chinese state needs it to in the interests of their economy. This is bad news for the already inflated bubble of ‘commodity value’ within which football transfers have begun to operate fuelled by obscenely large broadcasting deals. With the Chinese Super League competing for services of the same players as European clubs, the sheer amounts involved can only go towards the realm of the incomprehensible.


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