24 October 2016
President Xi Jinping is an ardent football fan, and wants mass participation in the sport. Photo: Internet
President Xi Jinping is an ardent football fan, and wants mass participation in the sport. Photo: Internet

Xi kicks off China’s Great Leap Forward in football

Though the next World Cup is still three years away, China has been abuzz with football in the past few weeks.

On March 16, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released a blueprint on football reforms. It is rare for the central government to issue a master plan that specifically addresses the development of a particular sport.

What made the document rarer was the fact that before it was released by the cabinet, it was reviewed and endorsed by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, a supreme Party body chaired by President Xi Jinping.

But this won’t come as a surprise if you are aware of Xi’s other capacity, which he openly declared and was apparently proud of, as an ardent football fan.

So it is no wonder that football has climbed onto the agenda of the top leader of the world’s most populous country, winning a spot on China’s long reform list.

Indeed, the football plan makes a lot of sense as an attempt to shift the country’s focus from winning gold medals to improving the fitness and well-being of the people.

In that sense, a centerpiece of the reform is to boost mass participation in the sport, with the importance of campus football highlighted.

According to the plan, the total number of elementary and middle schools specializing in football will increase from 5,000 at present to 20,000 in 2020 and 50,000 in 2025.

This makes sense. A country that has a small football population, China’s current situation, is not expected to perform well in the international arena. Besides, the essence of any sport is to improve the fitness of the population, not just a few professional players.

What makes things interesting, however, is how lower-level officials have responded to the plan.

The Ministry of Education, now designated by the top leadership as the department to govern campus football, announced that football would be made a compulsory subject for students.

Provinces across the country also came up with their own ambitious plans, starting a competition among themselves on the establishment of schools that specialize in football.

Jiangsu, for example, plans to establish 1,000 such schools by the end of 2017, and Sichuan plans to add 600 such schools this year.

Chinese universities also saw a surge in enthusiasm over football. Beijing Normal University set up a campus football research center in March. Tsinghua University, one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, reopened its recruitment of talented football students after a five-year hiatus.

Indeed, China is on football spree. But here are a few questions.

First of all, are these plans realistic?

For example, Jiangsu’s plan to have 1,000 schools featuring football looks too ambitious to be carried out well. As the province has more than 80 counties, the plan means that every county will have more than 10 such schools, which seems too many.

Sichuan has a similar problem. Local sports authorities acknowledge that the province would face a shortage of football teachers as each of the 600 planned schools needs at least two football teachers. The province can provide only 400 sports teachers a year.

If this problem is solved, another question is raised: Do schoolchildren really have the time to play?

Under China’s examination-oriented education system, schoolchildren have to deal with a heavy load of academic studies, leaving them with little time to do sports. According to a 2014 survey by China Youth Daily, more than 50 percent of the students surveyed said they didn’t have time to do sports, while nearly 70 percent said their PE classes gave way to other subjects such as Chinese or mathematics.

So, if the education system doesn’t change, opening more football schools becomes meaningless.

Indeed, if education authorities really want to make a difference, they should make sure students have the time to do sports and let them choose whatever sport they like instead of just pushing them to do football.

After all, not all schools are suitable to promote football. Think of those in mountainous areas where a football field is a luxury.

That said, the reason behind this round of football craze is clear. It’s more like a political game that caters for the hobby of the leader.

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The writer is an economic commentator. He writes mostly on business issues in Greater China.

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