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Politics of Sport

A Controversial Restart for Chinese Sports Reform

As a renewed reform push in China’s sports sector focuses on professionalizing codes and breaking up monopolies, hasty moves have caused blowback

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Yao Ming, head of the Chinese Basketball Association, talks with the national women’s basketball team after a training session in Beijing, April 10, 2017

China’s sports sector has been dogged by a string of controversies in recent years. In November 2016, former Beijing deputy party chief Gou Zhongwen, an engineer with no experience of the sport industry, was tasked with leading a reform of the sector when he was unexpectedly appointed head of the General Administration of Sports (GAS), China’s national sporting authority.  

A high profile hiring and a high profile firing followed. Earlier this year, the NBA star Yao Ming was elected head of the Chinese Basketball Association, becoming the first person in the chair to have never held public office. And in June, the popular former table tennis Grand Slam champion Liu Guoliang was removed from his post as head coach of China’s national table tennis team, sparking an online backlash.  

But industry insiders say these events make sense when viewed through the lens of a renewed push to reform China’s sports industry, after such reform stalled for more than a decade. They expect plenty more to come. 

Lost Decade

Fang Xuefeng, general secretary of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, says reform is now in full swing after a 10-year hiatus. So why did it stall?  

After the poor performance of China’s delegation to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, which won only five gold medals, Wu Shaozu, a former Chinese army general, was appointed head of China’s national sports commission, the predecessor to GAS. Wu was entrusted with reforming China’s sports sector at a critical and difficult time. Between 1993 and 1997, he implemented a slew of measures that included breaking up China’s six major sporting bodies into more than 20 sports management centers. 

Wu’s ultimate goal was to place every sport under the management of an independent sporting association. In 1997, however, China decided to bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, and reform ground to a halt as GAS’s priority shifted to winning as many Olympic gold medals as possible. 
When Wu left GAS in 2000, the two new heads of the organization continued to pour time and resources into the Olympics. In the intervening 16 years before Gou Zhongwen would take the post, China notched up a very successful Olympic Games, but had little success in domestic sporting reform.  

In the opinion of Wang Qi, deputy head of the China Sports Event Management Company, performance in sporting competitions became the sole criterion by which Chinese sporting development was measured for more than a decade.  

“It had a profoundly negative impact. Low investment in public team sport, as well as deteriorating public health, have contributed to a lack of public participation, and the industry’s low value,” he told NewsChina. “China’s major championship leagues, including the Chinese Basketball Association and Chinese Football Association, have suffered years of losses, not to mention table tennis and volleyball.” 

According to a 2015 report by the Chinese State news agency Xinhua, China’s high number of Olympic gold medals has come from a high concentration of national sport resources, and private sports organizations have found it hard to compete with administrators of monopoly sports. 

Some say the blame lies with those administrators. According to Wu Shaozu’s original plan, these were intended to be transitional bodies that would eventually be replaced by sports associations. But delays to reform have seen them swell into sovereign entities. 

Fang Xuefeng said these management centers did not have a purely negative impact. Their growth had brought more staff and resources to the sector, he said. “China snatched 51 gold medals during the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, and this was mainly attributed to the management of sport centers,” Fang told NewsChina.  

GAS now has 23 sport management centers and each is responsible for one or several sporting events. Sport associations cannot exist independently, and must be affiliated with a center.  

“In daily work, each sports center has their administrative authority, and they organize sporting events, participate in commercial activities. With the same person holding several different positions in what was essentially the same office, power and money were both concentrated in one pair of hands,” Fang said, adding that sports centers have moved away from Wu’s original reform goal, and become a significant hindrance to the development of China’s sporting industry.  

A system based on sport centers was vulnerable to corruption. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one GAS insider told NewsChina that since the Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his widely-publicized anti-graft campaign in 2012, sports centers have found it increasingly difficult to spend their budgets legitimately, and many have accumulated financial reserves of more than 100 million yuan (US$15m). 

In a high-level meeting in late 2016, GAS chief Gou Zhongwen blindsided sports center managements, calling them monopolies and saying too much power now rests in the hands of their chiefs. If bad chiefs were elected, disaster would ensue, he warned.