One common characteristic of Football matches in China is the extensive police presence. At the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing, each seating block is allocated numerous uniformed officers with more scattered between the fans and the pitch. The officers gather in rank once again after the match outside the stadium in plain view of any remaining spectators still loitering around, a show of force and a clear statement to any would-be troublemakers. Take a brief view at the photo below and you will clearly see many serving officers in khaki uniforms sat in the front row of the stand.
This behaviour shouldn’t seem strange to you. China is very wary of the potential of Football fixtures to be used as a springboard for defiant political activism and civic unrest directed toward its government. After all, Football stadia and demonstrations have a history.
Football stadia have always been a favoured medium for repressed peoples denied freedom of speech to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with political regimes. The vast volumes of spectators that can easily move around provides cover for dissidents looking to express their frustration at the ruling power and to propagate their own political agenda. You can shout what you like, duck and move somewhere else; cameras, stewards, officers and the Dictator will struggle to pick you out. The large number of spectators offers more protection than almost anywhere else available in modern public life. And in the heat of the moment, your fellow spectators who share your displeasure at the way the current administration is running things may just jump on the bandwagon and join in your chants and slogans. Pretty quickly the entire stadium can become a cacophony of political protest too great for the security personnel present to suppress.
Two great examples are FC Barcelona fans during Franco’s reign and Croatian fans in the Former Yugoslavia. The existence of FC Barcelona as a vehicle for Catalan Nationalism is well documented, and the Camp Nou became a safe-haven for the Catalan speakers to indulge in their language and culture in public, effectively sticking two fingers up to the Right Wing Castilian government that criminalised the Catalan language. This didn’t necessarily topple the regime, but it could be argued that the Camp Nou provided the safehouse that Catalan culture needed to endure and ultimately outlive the regime. In the former Yugoslavia, Hadjuk Split and Dynamo Zagreb fans similarly took the opportunity to chant, sing and swear in their Croatian mother-tongue, directing their defiant aggression toward Serbian rule (effectively) in Yugoslavia. The outcome here though was far bloodier; hooligan groups became militants as Yugoslavia descended into civil war. The key point is that in both instances, the Football stadium became the symbol of defiance for the people who identified as victims under each respective regime.
Why is this of relevance to China in the 21st century? Firstly we should say that we are no in way comparing the contemporary Chinese administration to that of Franco’s Spain or late Yugoslavia. But current Chinese rule is far more authoritarian relative to other modern developed states, and the government is aware that any Chinese citizens unhappy with its ruling style could be tempted to use Football matches as a medium for protest (regardless of how many citizens are actually unhappy). As a result, the over-the-top policing at Chinese Football matches serves to deter would-be protesters.
While still playing lip service to the Communist ideology, the Chinese government has come a long way from the Mao Zedong era. China has developed stronger economic ties with other major world economies in order to learn how to successfully transition its economy from a highly centralised one to a more market-orientated one. The government still acts as a key stakeholder in various strategic industries, such as energy, construction and internet-communications, but otherwise the transition toward market liberalism has been to the benefit of millions of Chinese citizens who have been pulled out of desperate poverty in 30 years thanks to economic growth. Money made has been taxed, providing revenue that has been invested in basic housing, amenities and infrastructure across the country. China’s recent economic success is both astonishing, and objective. In truth, the Chinese political system identified the need for economic reform in order to bring tangible benefit and progress to the lives of its citizens.
However, while the Chinese government has liberalised the economy, it retains a strong hold on the media and the political theatre. China is still a one-party state and the ruling Communist Party shows far less interest in political liberalism than it does economic liberalism. Multi-party elections and increased political discussion by regular citizens are not on the cards. The government employs extensive media censorship and the “Great Firewall” restricts access to Western media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Youtube. The more China can restrict the content and news that its citizens access, the better chance it has of stifling dissent and promoting its own agenda; citizens remain ignorant of information from sources other than the centralised state news channel. We in the West have been conditioned to react negatively toward this kind of governmental control. But China’s reasoning can be justified. Western style democracies are objectively worse at dealing with long term issues, as each administration plans on a 4 to 5 year basis. If China is to develop infrastructure, provide more extensive healthcare and confront domestic environmental problems etc, it arguably must stay a one-party state capable of investing more in long term plans and less in winning periodic parliamentary elections. Keeping people naive now will help them years down the line, in theory.
The methods used to block other sources of news and information are not infallible. News of the increasing domestic protests in Hong Kong against this approach to freedom of press and media will reach citizens of mainland China. Tech-savy Chinese citizens will find clever ways to fool the Great Firewall. And those living and working in major international cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou will learn from foreigners that they are more exposed to. The Chinese government is not completely safe, and it knows it. The projected growth of China’s economy in 2018 is slowing but still positive, and as long as the government continues to provide economic benefit to the majority of its citizens, it will remain relatively free from domestic criticism.
But one single act of protest at a Football match could begin the domino effect of country wide protests, a clear existential threat to the current Chinese administration. Strong negative incentives against unwanted activism in potential hotspots such as Football stadia are vital to the political status quo in China. Obedient police officers are pumped into Football stadia to act as a strong deterrent against defiant behaviour.