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A Game of Two halves – Corruption in Football in China
The Asian Crime Century briefing twenty
Last week South Korean soccer player Son Jun-ho, who plays for Shandong Taishan in the China Super League, was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes. Son (pictured above), is the first foreign player to be detained in the ongoing crackdown against corruption in football in China. He has played for the South Korean national team, and since 2021 has been with Shandong Taishan playing in the Chinese Super League.
Football is a passion of President Xi Jinping and in 2011 he stated his dream for China to qualify for, host, and win the World Cup. However, the investments in the game in the past two decades have resulted in continual corruption scandals and failed businesses. It is worth asking if the continual corruption in football in China is inherent in the sport or is a reflection of the endemic corruption in the country, or indeed both.
Our blood, our sweat, your tears
The Chinese Super League (known as the ‘CSL’) was formed in 2004 and is under the supervision of the Chinese Football Association, which is the sole representative of China as a member association of FIFA and Asian Football Confederation. The CSL is the top league in China, but the Chinese Football Association also supervises League 1, League 2, the Champions League, the National Youth Super League, the China Women’s Super League, the China Women’s League, as well as two Futsal leagues (a variation of five a side).
By the 2023 season there were 16 clubs in the CSL, from Beijing, Cangzhou, Changchun, Chengdu, Dalian, Hangzhou, Jinan, Qingdao, Rugao, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Wuhan, Wuhua, and Zhengzhou. The CSL has become a huge business opportunity, with sponsors including Siemens Mobile, IPhox, Kingway Beer, Pirelli, Wanda Plaza, and Ping An Insurance. Clubs have also attracted corporate owners, including Alibaba Group (Guangzhou), CITIC Group (Beijing), Evergrande Real Estate Group (Guangzhou), the Shide Group (Dalian), the State Grid Corporation of China (Shandong Taishan), Suning Appliance Group (Jiangsu), the Yatai Group (Changchun). This is a mighty complicated set of investors, some of which have their own debt and corruption problems that have caused scrutiny of their management.
The outcome of this investment, according to Caixin, is that football in China has long term issues with illegality including rampant match-fixing, especially after real estate companies invested huge amounts of money into the sport which led to players’ annual salaries reaching tens of millions of yuan and even higher transfer fees. As well as complicated corporate interest, football in China is at risk from the huge scale of illegal betting on the sport that has been growing for several decades. The Asian Racing Federation has stated that illegal sports betting in China is estimated to be at least double the legal betting market, amounting to at least one trillion Yuan (well over USD 100 billion).
Yet some of the CSL clubs are struggling financially. In April, the Chinese Football Association announced that it has suspended seven clubs from involvement in the next league season for failing to pay wages. Three of the clubs played in the Chinese Super League (Wuhan Yangtze, Hebei FC and Guangzhou City), and four were in League 1 (Shaanxi Chang’an Athletic, Beijing BSU, Zibo Cuju and Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard). The crisis in the property sector in China was reflected in football clubs, which in 2017 included nine clubs in the Chinese Super League owned by property companies. The debt crisis for property companies that became visible after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic became a debt crisis for football clubs. In May 2020, the Chinese Football Association announced that 11 of the 64 professional clubs were disqualified from leagues due to financial difficulties.
Victory requires payment in advance
There is a major crackdown on corruption in football in China taking place. This started in November 2022 when Li Tie, the national men’s team coach, was placed under investigation. Subsequent investigations have been announced into other Chinese Football Association officials including the deputy secretary general, the president, the disciplinary director, the competition department director, a former vice president, a former general manager, and the deputy director.
The most senior officials were an indication of the seriousness of the problems. In February it was announced that the President of the Chinese Football Association is under investigation for corruption. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection stated that Chen Xuyuan is suspected of “serious violations of discipline and law,” the usual CCDI language for corruption. In April Du Zhaocai, the then deputy head of the General Administration of Sport (the government department responsible for sport in China, subordinate to the State Council) and also the party secretary of the Chinese Football Association, was placed under investigation for corruption by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and dismissed from his positions.
Corruption in the administration of football and other sports in China is not new. In 2022, the Chinese Football Association suspended the Guangzhou Football Association for two years after the chairman of the Guangzhou Football Association and five others from the Evergrande Football School were found guilty of match-fixing. The most bizarre example of the extent of fixing was the under-15 boy’s soccer final - Qingyuan were leading Guangzhou 3-1 until during the second half when the players appeared to suddenly stop playing, leading to Guangzhou winning 5-3.
In 2012, three former Chinese Football Association vice presidents were sentenced to over ten years imprisonment after being found guilty of corruption charges, whilst a large number of other football officials were also punished.
Not only has football in Mainland China suffered from corruption, but football in Hong Kong has also experienced cases. In May, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) arrested 23 people in Hong Kong in connection with alleged match fixing. The alleged corruption involves a coach and multiple players who are suspected of betting on the planned outcomes of games and placing corresponding bets. The ICAC has commented that they found that half of the team members of the football club under investigation were involved in the match fixing. The latest case in Hong Kong is reminiscent of another in 2016 when five professional players from Hong Kong Pegasus and a suspected bookmaker were arrested over alleged match. The ICAC said at that time that the case involved bribes of HKD 90,000 (USD 11,500).
The huge illegal betting markets operated by Chinese organised crime groups are a key driver of corruption that has dogged football in the country for the past several decades. There is so much money being wagered in the illegal betting markets that buying the cooperation of players and officials is routine.
It’s hard to play against us. It’s harder to play for us
The authorities are engaging in major surgery to combat corruption in football, as well as other sports in China. In March Gao Zhidan, the Director of the General Administration of Sports, said that to deal with the problems in football, basketball and volleyball they needed "to cure sickness with powerful medicine". The comments were made in an ideological context, with Gao noting the success of women’s sports teams and saying that their struggle and hard work have inspired generations of Chinese people to strive for the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
The extent of corruption in China remains staggering. In the first quarter of 2023, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Chinese Communist Party anti-corruption organisation, reported recording 138,000 cases and punishing 111,000 people across the country.
In 2021, according to official statistics, the authorities accused 9,083 people of accepting bribes (an increase of over 20% from the prior year) and 2,689 of offering bribes. Since the launch of the anticorruption drive by Xi Jinping in 2012 up to 2021, the authorities have investigated 3.8 million cases and punished over 4 million government and CCP officials for corruption.
The CCDI reported that in 2021, around 630,000 corruption related cases were investigated nationally, and nearly the same number of officials and Party members were published. Considering that the CCP has a membership of around 96 million, punishing over half a million a year for corruption would result in half the entire Communist Party membership being punished within a decade. The scale of reported corruption is so huge that it is clearly endemic.
At the CCP’s 20th Central Committee inspection meeting in Beijing in March, Li Xi, the Secretary of the CCDI, said that the agency would carry out intensified inspections on the General Administration of Sport, and that authorities would investigate institutional problems in sports, especially in football, as part of strengthened efforts to stop corruption and reform the sports administration. The recent cases illustrate that the CCDI meant what it said. But given the extent of officials being punished for corruption in China, it seems increasingly hard to play for the home team.
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