To my surprise, fans were freely walking back out of the stadium. The vast security team that had so diligently monitored the actions of the crowd inside the ground now seemed entirely ambivalent to their temporary exit. With fifteen minutes to kill, I followed many fans out to find a soft drink. Having completed my purchase from a vendor making his living in the shadow of the stadium named in honour of the city’s proletariat, I turned to face the Beijing Workers’ Stadium and bumped into three young men in identical green t-shirts featuring bold designs. Given the impenetrable language barrier, I made a friendly motion to demonstrate my wish to take a photograph. Their passive demeanour evaporated.
The lad closest too me shot his hand straight up to the lens of my camera. “No, no….” His expression was not one of anger, but of concern. After all, members of Beijing Guoan’s Yulinjun supporter group have good reason to be fearful of individual identification.
The Yulinjun story begins not in their adopted north curve of the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, but in the east stand. The two tiers of this tribune are the fortnightly haunt of the Green Hurricane – the most popular Beijing Sinobo Guoan FC fan group founded shortly after the club became professional following its acquisition by the China International Trust and Investment Corporation in 1992. Sat nestled between the north curve and west stand for a Chinese Super League match, I had an excellent view of the several thousand strong Green Hurricane in action. They welcomed the Guoan starting XI onto the pitch with a carpet of green and yellow scarves. They applauded their team’s efforts (in spite of an embarrassing 4-1 home loss after having originally taken the lead in the 4th minute) with a glittering wall of illuminated smartphone torches. And they encouraged their boys with chants from start to finish flanked by 20 metre long textile banners covered in aesthetically pleasing Mandarin calligraphy.
Conversely, the style of support on display in the north stand would be far more recognisable to Europeans. The 400 Yulinjunites present were split across two seating blocks straddling an entrance tunnel. The half on the right wore matching green t-shirts. Their counterparts on the left wore black. A capo figure stood before the group, sharing instructions through a megaphone that were well received by the self-proclaimed ultras. Beneath rippling custom-made flags featuring monikers that would not look out of place in the company of Bremen, Betis or Bordeaux, Beijing’s finest and fiercest bounced, clapped and screamed themselves hoarse for 90 minutes. What else would you expect from fanatics who name themselves after the Imperial Guards of the Forbidden City located only 4 kilometres away?
It spite of clear behavioural differences, it would be wrong to describe the Green Hurricane and the Yulinjun as adversaries. Both groups ultimately share a common goal. However, in 2005 leading figures of the latter pushed for a split from the former in response to growing concerns over the interference of the club. Beijing Sinobo Guoan FC’s directors mandated greater operational involvement in the Green Hurricane fan group as well as greater clarity concerning the group’s actions. To this day, club management sets aside a budget for the Green Hurricane and offers a higher ticket allocation for its members (suspected to be in the region of 4,000). Conversely, the Yulinjun proudly reject financial assistance in favour of greater autonomy from the boardroom. But this comes at a price; while the younger fan group does occupy a specific section of the stadium, its ticket allocation is far smaller than that of the Green Hurricane, and the Yulinjunites must endure the overexaggerated presence of military police officers during games.
At face value, this does not seem unusual. The skeptical fanatics in your stadium frequently bemoan the authorities’ decision to restrict their ability to bring in pyrotechnical devices as well as the perceived prioritisation of commercial interests over fan wellbeing in the modern era. However, the very particular nature of China’s political landscape means that members of any influential organisation that is not integrated with the relevant central authorities face risks that European ultras do not.
I serendipitously sat next to a young, competent English speaker for the CSL league match against Hebei China Fortune FC. Ji had recently become a father and thus couldn’t attend regular games any more. He confessed to how much he used to enjoy being part of the Yulinjun fan group. “They are the most influential ones” he said with a smile. But a few seconds later, his tone changed. “But I’m not part of that any more. Nothing to do with them”.
Western commentators anticipated a definite swing towards democracy (or at least some kind of reform of the one-party-system) in the world’s most populous nation as a direct consequence of the growing ubiquity of the internet in the 21st century. It was predicted that an increasingly tech-savvy Sinic population would be able to outmaneuver the CCP’s censorship machinery in order to access and then disseminate information from foreign media sources. With greater public awareness of the flaws and failures of a party that claims infallibility, a bottom-up revolution much like those of the Arab Spring would signal the end of dictatorship and the dawn of liberal democracy in Beijing. Yet two full decades into the new century, that has not happened. On the contrary; Xi Jinping’s ascent to the position of party Premier in 2013 marked the beginning of the most effective totalitarian rule the world has ever seen.
Much in keeping with the norms of totalitarian regimes, the CCP is wary of any figure capable of usurping its power. The party used to fear the internet, but in an astonishingly short period of time is has become a master at controlling the medium in its favour. It utilises an incredibly complex array of tools to block content it dislikes, circulate party-friendly propaganda (often disguised as independent journalism, entertainment or social media comments) and monitor the activities of potential dissidents within its jurisdiction. Its powerful algorithms process an insane amount of harvested digital information to work out how to recognise potential troublemakers from their patterns of behaviour online – sometimes even before the troublemakers themselves conceive of making trouble.
If the CCP decides you are a threat, you’re fucked. All Chinese public institutions, such as the army, the police force and the judiciary, belong the party. The conviction rate in China is therefore 99.9%, and the ambiguous nature of the country’s laws regarding “freedom” of expression allows the CCP to decide who it can arrest. And while individual activists (and Nobel Prize Winners) often find themselves in the hot seat, organisations come under scrutiny as well. Religion’s ability to influence behaviour has been a long standing concern of the Chinese Communist Party, and the party’s decision to resettle 10% of Xinjiang province’s Uighur population into “reeducation centres” is (at least in part) due to their religious piety.
Religions, NGO’s and media outlets have typically been the types of organisations that the modern CCP has pursued in this way. But an ultra fan group that does its best to keep the authorities at a distance could also potentially be perceived as a dissident organisation threatening the party’s rule. Members of Beijing Guoan’s Yulinjun have quietly observed the state’s increasingly sophisticated use of emerging technologies in the last decade, and now find themselves in a very difficult situation. No wonder they are so scared of being personally identifiable in a photograph.