An immediate observation of the fan culture at Chinese Football games is the lack of anything new. Fans wave colourful flags, bounce, drum, clap, raise scarves and shine their smartphone torches at at the end of a match; traditions observable at Football stadia around the world. Chinese Football fans are looking to foreign leagues for inspiration and borrowing customs that they think work well, instead of taking the time to develop fan traditions of their own. It may sound harsh, but it is certainly true.
When you think about it, this behavioural pattern makes sense. In the business world, Chinese companies are famed for their propensity to copy existing product and service details (particularly in the tech and automotive industries) before using the country’s phenomenal economies of scale to mass manufacture a copy of an identical product from the West for a fraction of the cost, transferring that lower manufacturing cost to the market as a cheaper price for what appears to be the same product. Western companies innovate. Chinese companies copy and manufacture at a lower cost and flood the market with “knock-offs”. In the 21st century, the Chinese are getting ahead in international markets not by applying creativity, but by taking advantage of economies of scale. This handily explains why the Chinese entertainment industries, which depend entirely on creativity, are far less popular on a global scale than those of their Asian neighbours, notably South Korea, Japan and India, and also why Chinese Football fans are importing fan traditions instead of inventing their own. They are used to replicating, not innovating.
But it is entirely wrong to say that a lack of creativity is inherent in the Han Chinese mentality, character and culture. Throughout pre-modern history, China has been not only one of the world’s most advanced economies, but also one of the most creative and ingenious. The Han Chinese (acknowledging that modern China is home to other ethnic minorities) have presented the world with an astonishing array of innovative products. Paper money, the compass, gunpowder, firework rockets, movable type printing, smoke grenades, mines, toilet paper, single-wheel wheelbarrows, hydraulic pumps used for land reclamation, mortars and ship hulls were invented in the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD) alone, and this era also saw great innovations in metallurgy, education, agriculture (rice first became a staple of the Chinese diet during the Song Dynasty) and the production of silk, ceramics and lacquer (while the Song Dynasty was a period of great innovation and invention, it was also one of the most oppressive dynasties to women, being the one that normalised the binding of women’s feet. So, let’s not get too excited about it). Yes, you would naturally expect more innovation and invention from an extremely populous nation. But China’s cultural emphasis on education, rule of law, meritocracy and protection of intellectual property has facilitated an enormous amount of ingenuity and innovation for millennia.
Why then are the Han Chinese not known for creativity in modern times? The answer lies in the modern political history of the People’s Republic.
In the past 30 years or so, China has slowly opened up to international trade, but the legacy of Communism survives. Unlike Capitalism and free-market economies, Communism and planned-economies do not depend so heavily on innovators and creativity. Capitalism thrives when its subjects constantly question the status-quo. The dog-eat-dog nature of competitive markets featuring many participants obligates companies, and by extension their employees, to internalise the notion that a process or system can always be improved. For investments to pay off in the Capitalist system, constant innovations need to be made that in some way produce higher margins. Free-market economies have fostered a culture that promotes creativity and innovation, a process that begins with our education as infants. We are taught to question what we see as common knowledge and think creatively from a young age via a curriculum designed by a government that wants its economic system to prosper. But a planned-economy does not rely on constant innovation that satisfies stakeholder needs in the same way. Individuals raised in Communist countries are not taught to think outside the box and constantly question the status-quo, and the result is a culture that is far less rewarding of creativity and innovation.
We have to acknowledge that when we see an oddity such as modern Chinese Football fans copying traditions from other countries instead of creating their own, it is reflective of how our culture is unusual as much as theirs may be. When Westerners see a lack of originality in Chinese Football fan behaviour, it is a mere reflection of the way in which their political and economic systems place such overwhelming importance on originality and creativity. Chinese Football fans will continue to pinch foreign ideas seen on TV and Social Media instead of coming up with their own unique customs. But cities that are more connected to the West, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, are far more likely to see home-grown fan traditions sprouting than cities with a lower exposure to foreign ideas, as local populations slowly learn from the greater abundance of foreigners living there.